LFF 2019 #5: The Perfect Candidate (Saudi Arabia-Germany 2019)

Maryam, the doctor wearing a niqab at work at the beginning of the narrative

The third cinema film by writer-director Haifaa Al Mansour is a return to the successful mix of elements in her first feature, Wadjda in 2012. (She also directed a Netflix film Nappily Ever After, a romantic comedy, in 2018.) This new film returns her to a narrative about a woman in contemporary Saudi Arabia (KSA) following the difficult development process of her second feature Mary Shelley in 2018. I found this new film engaging and enjoyable but it raises several questions (as did Wadjda). A number of cultural/social changes have taken place in the KSA in the last few years and the film enters into a discourse about what women might be able to achieve in various ways. I was surprised by some of the narrative developments and I did wonder to what extent the events were fantasy/wish fulfilment. As I left at the end of the screening a young woman ran past me and several others shouting at the top of her voice and accusing the audience of laughing at the central character, saying it wasn’t funny and that the character would have been stoned to death in the real world. Each of us on the stairs were stunned by this and puzzled. None of us thought the film was necessarily a comedy, but certainly there are moments of humour in what is a rich and detailed script. However, this rather violent reaction does point to a genuine scepticism about how we should read the film. I have also seen reviews that describe the film as a comedy.

The sisters working on the electoral campaign

The narrative involves a family. The father, a distinguished musician and singer is still grieving for his recently deceased wife and is perhaps less concerned about what his three daughters are getting up to than other Saudi patriarchs. I presume that the youngest daughter, Sara, is still at school or college. Her two older sisters have different ideas and different jobs. Selma is an organiser of weddings – a big deal for wealthy families in KSA – and Maryam has trained as a doctor and is now working in a small local hospital on the edge of the town outside Riyadh. Maryam is ambitious for her own career but events will push her in unexpected directions as she becomes the central focus of the narrative. It’s worth noting, however, that her father has his own narrative which involves getting his band of traditional popular musicians back on the road. Such music has been repressed by the authorities for many years but now a new ‘National Band’ is to be set up by the state. Through a complicated series of events Maryam almost accidentally becomes a candidate for the local council and she then targets the need to build a proper road to her hospital as the basis for her campaign.

Maryam has the courage to speak at her first campaign event – to an audience of women and therefore can appear ‘unveiled’

My first thought about the film was that it drew on similar events to those in films like Rana’s Wedding (Palestine-Neth-UAE 2002), At Five in the Afternoon (Iran-France 2003) and Permission (Iran 2018). In each of these films, a young woman is attempting to achieve something important but is blocked at crucial moments by a system that forces her to get permission, usually from a male authority figure, or to go through bureaucratic processes that are more difficult for women, especially when they are veiled. This new film presents us with a political candidate completely covered by a burqa as in At Five in the Afternoon. Each of these films also  eventually involves the woman in personal dramas which are used to critique more general social issues. My second point thought has been that Haifaa Al Mansour finds herself in a similar situation to Gurinder Chadha in the UK in that she is approaching issues about her own culture through forms of popular entertainment that may involve familiar ‘feelgood’ elements. It’s significant that both women have American partners (who are also co-writers) and have made films in the US. They have both then faced quite polarised responses by critics and by social commentators and general cinema audiences. The Perfect Candidate was reviewed after its Venice appearance by Jay Weissberg of Variety as a totally formulaic film in which plot points are signalled well in advance and which the characters themselves carry the plotline because the film is otherwise visually bland. Other reviews praise the film for its message of female empowerment. It is worth noting, however, that the film is sanctioned by the Saudi Film Council and that it is officially the Saudi entry for the Foreign Language Oscar competition. So it is clearly not seen as ‘radical’ – or at least not ‘dangerously’ so. But these kinds of judgements can backfire. Without spoiling the narrative I can note that our female protagonist both ‘loses’ and ‘wins’. Audiences take what they want from films. If young women in Saudi Arabia (and other countries) get to see the film and are inspired to attempt some form of social rebellion, no matter how small-scale and limited, the film will have had an effect.

Maryam’s father has his own story on the road with his fellow band members

The plot may be formulaic and the narrative an over optimistic fantasy but the script manages to tie the father’s narrative to that of his daughter. Again this made me think of Gurinder Chadha’s films in which in similar communities of strong women in patriarchal societies, it is the father’s support which confirms the possibility of change. The performances in the film are generally very good including Mila Al Zahrani as Maryam and Khalid Abdulraheem as her father. As in Wadjda, the director is relying on established TV actors with little opportunity to play in films. Selma, the videographer is played by a well-known Saudi ‘social media influencer’ Dhay (Dae Al Hilali). The film also features a female wedding singer played by Khadeeja Mua’th, a major star in Saudi Arabia who made me think of an African-American soul singer. There are 10 million foreigners in Saudi Arabia, most of whom are migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Egypt and elsewhere in Asia. I don’t think this population was represented in the film, though there are characters who might be of African origin. When I told a friend I’d seen a film made in Saudi Arabia he said he thought it was a disgusting regime and he wouldn’t watch a Saudi film. I can understand this reaction but I think films always tell us something about the societies they depict and The Perfect Candidate has prompted me to research the country a little more. At the moment, I don’t think the film has been picked up for UK distribution. Here’s the international trailer.

LFF 2019 #4: Monsoon (UK 2019)

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Character in search of an identity

LFFlogo2019I enjoyed writer-director Hong Khaou’s debut feature, Lilting, and we’re in similar territory investigating the issue of diaspora identity. Though the protagonist (Henry Golding’s Kit), as in Lilting, is gay, unlike the first film the emphasise isn’t on sexuality but on his attempt to understand where he belongs. Kit is returning to Saigon, having left as a young child, and finds himself a stranger in the land that nurtured him. His dislocation is not presented in any way as dramatic, it is just something he tries to work though.

Like LiltingMonsoon is a melodrama, but eschews extremes: there is no deluge of emotion. To criticise this would be unfair as it’s clearly not the intention of the film to engage in histrionics; I like my melodrama to be meaty. Although we all have crises in our lives they are usually played out in a low-key fashion, as is Kit’s.

Kit hooks up with Parker Sawyers’ Lewis, son of a Vietnam veteran. Lewis’ relationship with his adopted home is also conflicted as he’s obviously troubled by America’s role in the country. However, there’s no suggestion from the film about how to deal with this other than through an angry denial that he ‘isn’t one of those’ (gung-ho) Americans.

Typically of melodrama, mirrors proliferate and often disorientate as we’re not sure whether we’re seeing the character or his (women are marginal in the film) reflection. For me it was setting up interesting themes but never developing them; we never learn who is in the mirror. Of course there are no easy answers but I’d’ve liked the film to suggest some with which I could argue or agree. The widescreen compositions are immaculately framed.

Similarly melodramatic, is the manic traffic (which I’m told is absolutely Saigon) which makes it hard to think. So maybe that’s why there are no ‘answers’.

Clearly I’m lukewarm about the film for it was too cool for me. However, it is certainly worth seeing. In a world of shifting identities (one of the reasons why bigots like Farage and many Brexiteers crave for the certainty of Britain’s ‘great’ past) we need cinema to interrogate what it means to be who we are.

LFF 2019 #3: The Valley (Italy-France 2019)

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Doing the right thing

lfflogo2019 Portuguese director Nuno Escudeiro has made an affecting documentary set in the Roya and Durance Valleys on the France-Italy border. It’s primarily an observational work so we learn about the situation through characters’ interactions and occasionally their explanation of the situation to the director (but not directly the camera). For instance, one explains that the valleys, though in France, were part of Italy before World War II and the inhabitants don’t feel they belong to either country. It’s a sort of liminal space into which Eritrean refugees try to seek asylum.

Legally, of course, they should be able to do so but the authorities also perceive the area to be a liminal space otherwise why would they suspend due legal process? This is a naive question as police are often happy to contravene the law especially when told to do so. We learn most from Cedric, one of the leaders of local people who try to right the wrong done to the refugees who are often plonked back over the border into Italy without due process. Children often find, on official paperwork, that their birthdate is 1st January 2000 meaning they have suddenly become adult so can be dealt with particularly poorly. Such cynical corruption is indicative of the way those portrayed as Other are often treated.

As to the refugees themselves, there’s only one scene when we get to hear their voices directly. Even then we don’t get to know who they are, or from what they are fleeing, rather we are informed about their generalised sense of trauma. Whilst the absence of their voices is an obvious omission, it would be unfair to be too critical as Escudeiro’s purpose is clearly to tell the local heroes’ stories and he does this successfully. These people bear witness to the wrong and do what they can to set it right.

In recent news Turkey’s president Erdoğan threatened to allow 3.5 million Syrian refugees into Europe if there was any attempt to interfere with his restarted, courtesy of Trump, war on the Kurds. The morality of using people as a bargaining chip, never mind the fact they are desperate, is unspeakable. So Escudeiro’s film is important in reminding us human’s humanity to humans in a world where examples of inhumanity are too numerous to mention. Bearing witness to the terrible treatment of refugees is necessary so we don’t feel that such behaviour can be normalised.

LFF 2019 #2: Fête de famille (Happy Birthday, France 2019)

Lunch al fresco

I’m not sure why I booked this screening. Possibly it was the prospect of Catherine Deneuve as a matriarch and the reputation of writer-director Cédric Kahn. I also like the venue, the Ciné Lumière in South Kensington. However, I later realised that I’d got my Cédrics mixed up. I was thinking of Cédric Klapisch who made Un air de famille in 1996 and this new film has a very similar plot, except it shifts the location to a country house rather than a restaurant. Cédric Kahn is connected in my memory with films that are more dramatic than comic.

The birthday party in question is for Andréa (Deneuve) the matriarch of a family of two sons and a daughter plus three grand-children and a husband Jean (Alain Artur), who I don’t think is the father of any of the three grown-up children. Andréa is the owner of the large house in the country. The director himself plays the elder son Vincent with Laetitia Colombani as Marie, his wife and the mother of the two grandsons. Emmanuelle Bercot plays Claire the daughter and Vincent Macaigne plays the second son Romain. Claire’s estranged daughter Emma (Luàna Bajrami) is a student who lives with her grandparents and Romain has his latest possible fiancée in tow, Rosita (Isabel Aimé González-Sola). The party also includes Emma’s boyfriend Julien (Joshua Rosinet). He is a talented pianist who I don’t remember having much dialogue at all. He is disturbingly the only person of colour on screen. I did tend to see his presence as either a cliché or a form of tokenism (intended to strengthen the sense of Emma as a rebel within the family group?).

Watching the play by the younger family members

It’s worth noting that four of the actors are also directors themselves. I’m not sure if that makes any difference. The setting and the script suggest a very ‘theatrical’ production with most locations in the house or garden and just a few brief but eventful car trips outside. Cédric Kahn himself suggests that there is a conventional three-act structure and one episode includes a play devised and performed by Emma and Julien and the two young grandsons. As well as the starry cast, the film has an equally experienced and celebrated crew and the whole thing looks very good. Music is important and I very much enjoyed a song by Françoise Hardy, ‘Mon amie la rose’. Why then did I feel disappointed and a little let down by the film overall?

I think perhaps that I was surprised that such a conventional film would be included in a festival programme. This is indeed like a well-produced play with twists and turns in the plot and each of the core star actors given a story to present. But in the end these stories don’t add up to much that’s new or particularly interesting. Added to that, the comic elements didn’t really work for me. Sometimes the comedy seemed cruel  or perhaps seeking to be satirical but without clear targets. It’s a prestigious production however and if you like that kind of thing you might like this.