Search results for: free men

Free Men (Les hommes libres, France 2011)

Les Hommes Libres
There have been a number of French films over the last few years about World War Two which, even if they are not particularly good examples of the cinematic art, at least draw attention to important aspects of history which would otherwise not be known or not known particularly well. Days of Glory (Indigènes, Rachid Bouchareb2006) deals with the treatment of African colonial troops fighting in the Free French forces in the Second World War. The Army of Crime (L’armée du crimeRobert Guédiguian, 2009) – perhaps one of the more successful – looks at the events of the” l’affiche rouge” (“red poster”) affair in which the Nazis sought to present prominent resistance fighters in Paris as foreign criminals. The title was taken from the caption on a Nazi propaganda poster, which reads “Liberators? Liberation by the army of crime”.

The Round-up (La rafle, Roselyne Bosch, 2010) is a faithful retelling of the 1942 “Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup” and the events surrounding it where the Vichy authorities in Paris, going beyond what their Nazi masters demanded, rounded up 13,000 French Jews, including 4,000 children, and kept them in the Vélodrome d’Hiver (winter cycling track) until they were transported to French concentration camps and thence to their death in the camps in the East. (Some of the publicity suggested that this film was the first to bring this knowledge to a wide audience. In fact there were at least two French films portraying this event: Les Guichets du Louvre (The Gateways to the Louvre) (Michel Mitrani, 1974), and Mr. Klein (David Losey, 1976).

Free Men (Les hommes libres, Ismaël Ferroukhi, 2011) joins this list. It is set in and around Paris’s Muslim community and in particular the city’s Central Mosque. Jews and resistance members were being hidden in the Mosque’s cellars while, up above, this place of worship was frequently visited by German occupiers.

There are two prominent real-life characters in this little-known story. Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit is Rector of the Mosque, (played by  Anglo-French veteran, Michael Lonsdale); and Salim Halali, the gifted Algerian Jewish singer, passing as an Arab to escape deportation and living under the protection of the Mosque, (played by Israeli Palestinian actor, Mahmoud Shalaby). Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit is played as a courageous man but also a subtle diplomat, leading on the Wehrmacht officers with promises of an alliance with the Moroccan monarchy.

At the centre of the film is Younes, played by Tahar Rahim (who starred in Un prophète (Jacques Audiard, 2009)), whose character is based on a composite of several real-life individuals. Younes is a young apolitical Algerian black-marketeer, concerned only with himself and his family back home. He is forced to become an informer for the collaborationist police but, under the influence of his politicised cousin, he is gradually drawn into taking sides against the Nazis.

Younes’s metamorphosis into a militant in the resistance is slow and gradual. His first act of resistance is to deliver false identity papers to Jews living in hiding. He is too late to help the parents but he leads the two young children to the Mosque where they are taken in and given papers saying they are Muslims. The Germans begin to suspect the Mosque of both harbouring Jews and Resistance members and providing Jews with false paperwork saying they are Muslims.

So does it work as a film? Unfortunately good intentions don’t always make good films. The weak script and mise en scène undermine the humanist project of the film. In terms of genre, Free Men is perhaps a thriller but the moments of suspense and intrigue are few and far between. It’s probably best to think of it as a psychological drama, but without the tension you would expect from that genre.

One of the problems with the film is that it frequently initiates potentially interesting plot strands only to seemingly leave those ideas as non-sequiturs, with the result that the film wastes several opportunities for emotional impact. For example, Younes sees a young man coming out of Salim’s room. He is shocked and reacts badly but when he sees Salim again he apologises for his reaction. But that is it. It was hardly worthwhile to raise the question of Younes’s gayness if nothing was going to be done with it in the film. Likewise, Younes is attracted to Leila, a young woman in the mosque. We discover that far from being the submissive Muslim female, she is a leading member of the Algerian Communist Party who sees the resistance against the Nazis as a stage in the liberation of Algeria. She is arrested and Younes witnesses her being taken away. It’s not as if we’re expecting an all-guns-blazing rescue à la John Wayne but it’s frustrating that this narrative strand, once raised, is frittered away.

The film also suffers from its low budget (around €8 million) for a period piece. For example, the liberation of Paris – which many cinemagoers will be familiar with both from documentary footage as well as a number of fiction films – is evoked as well as it could be with a few dozen extras, lots of flags and, I think, three vehicles, one of which looked vaguely military.

My overall impression of the film is that it felt like an earnest TV movie. It is bland and inoffensive, qualities you wouldn’t normally associate with Resistance films. Usually when I watch such films (and I’m thinking in particular of Jean-Pierre Melville’s marvellous Army of Shadows (L’armée de l’ombre, 1969)), I have a kind of trepidation at the likely scenes of torture and degradation. We were spared these on the whole but at the expense of involvement in the drama. The only real suspense I recall in the film is the scene of the evacuation of those in hiding being led down through the tunnels to a boat on the Seine which leads them to relative safety in Algeria.

One of the strong points of the film was performance. Lonsdale is as good as he was in Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux, Xavier Beauvois, 2010). And Tahir showed he is a subtle and intense actor who is capable of demonstrating a range of emotions. The progression he makes from barely literate factory worker to full-fledged revolutionary is by far the most captivating aspect in an otherwise plodding screenplay

I should add that, despite a good familiarity with the Occupation and Resistance in World War 2 France, I was completely unaware of the role of the Paris Central Mosque and I have the film to thank for that. And I liked the North African music a lot.

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Free Download: Teachers’ Notes on Senna (UK 2010) and Documentary Practice

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These notes act as an introduction to some of the interesting questions about the approach to a specific type of documentary by the British filmmaker Asif Kapadia. The same approach was adopted in Kapadia’s recent film Amy (UK 2015) telling the tragic story of Amy Whitehouse. A detailed post on Amy will follow shortly.

The approach discussed here involves creating a narrative entirely from archive or ‘found’ footage and complementary sound recording and photographs.

The notes were originally provided for study days for A Level Film and Media groups (16-19 year-old students) involving a full screening and an illustrated lecture on documentary practice. Some of the background material was jointly written with Nick Lacey. The notes include discussion questions and can be used in conjunction with the DVD of Senna.

Download:

Senna: Teacher Notes

Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women and the ‘twilight Western’

The lawyer Laura Wells (Laura Dern)

Although I’d seen Kelly Reichardt’s previous three films, I still wasn’t quite prepared for Certain Women. I watched it intently but despite foreknowledge about her approach to narrative I was still surprised when it just stopped. I’ve thought a lot about the film over the last few days. Ms Reichardt is a favourite of many (most?) critics and I understand why. But her films still don’t get a wide release. She doesn’t make it easy for audiences but I would urge you to watch the films if you get the chance.

The ‘certain women’ of the title are four women in Montana. They are involved in three separate narratives which are subtly linked together in indirect ways. In the first we meet a small town lawyer played by Laura Dern who finds herself exhausted and exasperated by a difficult client. In the second, Michelle Williams is a business woman with a husband and teenage daughter who don’t seem totally enamoured of her attempts to build a weekend cottage using sustainable local materials. The third story features Kristen Stewart as a recent law graduate with little money forced to drive across the state to teach night school. There, by accident, she meets a young woman working in a solitary job as a ranch hand looking after a small herd over winter. This character (who some reviewers refer to as ‘Jamie’) is played by Lily Gladstone who is part Native American. I have to agree with all the critics and festival juries who pick out her performance over her more established fellow actors – each of whom are very good in their roles.

Chosen as the ‘Best Film’ at the London Film Festival in 2016, Certain Women has since been extensively reviewed so here I want to focus on just a limited range of responses. (Sophie Mayer has an excellent article on the film in Sight and Sound, March 2017 – it isn’t online as far as I can see but Mayer covers some of the same ground here.) Kelly Reichardt was born in Florida and her first film was made there, but her recent work is set in the North West, especially in Oregon. Landscape is crucially important in these films and Reichardt began her career with a fascination for photography. She has been well-served by her director of photography Christopher Blauvelt who has shot her last three films and she herself has taken on the film editing for her five major features. She has re-iterated that she hopes audiences will look to find meanings in her films rather than have them explained. The first shot of Certain Women (the whole film was shot on 16mm, blown up) is a static long shot as a mile-long freight train gradually comes into view. I’m not sure if I immediately thought of Brokeback Mountain at this point, but I certainly did later. The first shot of Brokeback is a long shot of a truck stopping early in the morning, in Wyoming not Montana but the landscape is similar. There are huge spaces, mountains, big skies and only a few people in small towns. I remember two other specific moments from early in the film. In one the camera lingers on a scene in a small shopping mall where children in Native American costume are performing a dance. It feels like a documentary. Sound is important as well. Laura Dern’s character, despondent in her car, turns on the radio/CD and we hear Guy Clark’s ‘Boats to Build’:

It’s time for a change
I’m tired of that same o’l same
The same ol’ words the same ol’ lines
The same ol’ tricks and the same ol’ rhymes

Days precious days
Roll in and out like waves
I got boards to bend I got planks to nail
I got charts to make I got seas to sail

I didn’t register those lyrics at the time, but when I read them now, they seem like the perfect ironic accompaniment to the desolate lives of the characters. I’ve never been to Montana but I’ve read a few stories and watched a lot of movies. The stories that interest me most are those which are either set in the final days of the ‘frontier’, both ‘real’ and mythical, or which comment in some way on the world of the contemporary ‘Western’ with its lonely cowhands and characters seemingly bereft of purpose. Any time after the 1880s is perfect for the ‘twilight Western’ and Brokeback Mountain is one of the most prominent examples of this kind of story. Brokeback began as an E. Annie Proulx short story that was adapted by Diana Ossana and the ‘dean of the twilight Western’, Larry McMurtry (also responsible for the Montana-set Lonesome Dove and Texas-set The Last Picture Show). Another writer with a trilogy of Montana-set variations on the twilight Western is Thomas McGuane with Rancho Deluxe (1975), The Missouri Breaks (1976) and Tom Horn (1980). The (anti-)heroes of these stories are generally men who can’t come to terms with the decline of the West and its codes and are defeated/discouraged by the modernised West. (Jane Fonda in Alan J. Pakula’s Comes a Horseman from 1978 is one of the few female leads.)

Kelly Reichardt began to critique the Western with Meek’s Cutoff (2010) in which Michelle Williams plays a woman with more sense than the men on her pioneer wagon train – but, of course, the men don’t listen to her. The four women of Certain Women still live to some extent in a world of men who don’t listen or who make foolish decisions which the women will pay for in some way. For Certain Women Reichardt has adapted short stories by Montana novelist Maile Meloy from her collections Half in Love (2002) and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It (2009). It occurs to me that each of the three stories could be related to Western narratives and themes. The first story develops into a familiar tale about sheriffs and fugitives with Laura ‘used’ by the law because she is compassionate and can defuse a potentially tricky situation. What does she get out of it? It’s as if she’s restricted by those traditional roles for women in the Western – schoolteacher, pioneer mother or saloon girl. The third story about the lonely ranch hand and the exhausted teacher is a sad romance, beautifully played and paced and its standout is the short sequence in which the two young women are together on the horse that takes them between the school and the diner. This story has obvious echoes of Brokeback (in which, as I’ve just remembered, Montana-born Michelle Williams is the abandoned wife and mother). In the twilight Western there are often two characters – one who tries to adapt to modernity and one who is trapped inside the codes of the West (which in these stories are usually honourable codes). The exhausted Beth and ‘natural’ ranch hand again seem familiar.

Michelle Williams as Gina, the business woman, properly dressed and striking a confident pose?

In the second story from Certain Women Williams is Gina, the ‘strong woman’ still not sure if she is doing the right thing and struggling with herself as she does what those pioneer women had to do and build her own house (or at least, direct and organise the men she finds to do it). In this story the key scene is her encounter with the old man who has a pile of sandstone blocks that she would like to use for her house. He doesn’t need them but how much should she pay for them? Is she right to ask for them? If he offers them to her for free should she take them? The man with the stones is played by René Auberjonois, a name I recognised more than a face. Later I realised I had seen him in countless Westerns as well as the films of Robert Altman (Reichardt in an interview says she used to use his voice as the bartender in McCabe and Mrs Miller in exercises for film students). While her husband says nothing, Gina tries to engage the old man when he looks out on his land and points out the birds. Gina mimics the bird calls and we can’t be sure whether she is genuinely interested in the birds or just practised in negotiation. Again she seems to be struggling with a ‘modern’ role. Is she any happier than in her previous incarnation as pioneer woman?

Kristen Stewart as Beth, the law graduate trying to teach night school.

The first story, in which Laura at one point cries out, imagining what it might be like to be a man who is listened to and given credence, is the only one with conventional (i.e. generic) ‘action’ – but even then its conclusion is subverted. In all three stories, the meaning is conveyed through landscape, cinematography and sound. It’s also ironic that one of the markers of the mise en scène of the ‘woman’s picture’ is costume. Reichardt may well have made an ‘anti-woman’s picture’ (as well as an ‘anti-Western’ and an ‘anti-melodrama’?). Costume says a lot here. In the first scene Laura returns to her office from a lunch-time tryst, late and a little bedraggled. Her sweater is half tucked in her skirt and half pulled out. We watch her climb the stairs and then come down when she is called to the phone by her receptionist. We know it isn’t going to be an easy afternoon. By contrast, Michelle Williams as Gina is seen first in running gear (and headphones) and then securely wrapped up for the cold – ‘properly’ dressed and with her hair tied up. At the end of the episode when she smokes a cigarette and sips a glass of wine at the chilly barbecue she has organised it seems like a visualisation of the contradiction between her efficient businesswoman and her striving for authenticity. Like Laura, Gina seems to represent the two twilight Western characters in a single conflicted character.

Lily Gladstone – fresh and open-faced

In the third episode, Beth (Kristen Stewart) wears clothes that look as tired as she is. Meanwhile, Lily Gladstone as the ranch hand is dressed for manual work but looks lively and alert (for the moment anyway). Both Wendy Ide in the Observer and A. O. Scott in the New York Times comment on Kristen Stewart’s performance. Ide argues that we know her performance is exceptional but it’s hard to figure out what she does. Scott makes the point that she successfully conveys the character’s tiredness and despair, but still retains enough of the glamour that appeals to the ranch hand. In terms of the ‘anti’ twilight Western however, the ranch hand who is closest to the land and open to the romanticism of the myth of the West is the one who is going to suffer. The other three characters all seem aware that they are attempting to ‘make it’ in the contemporary Western scenario, but so far are still trapped in their mythical roles or are unsure how far they have escaped them. You might wonder why I haven’t mentioned the male characters in the film. There are two significant male roles, both of which have a narrative importance, but one of which is so inconsequential as a character that I didn’t realise his significance until after the screening. There is also a dog (there often is in a Reichardt film). I didn’t know there were corgis in the US. They don’t look well-adapted for ranch work, but Wikipedia tells me they are bred as ‘herding dogs’ (see the trailer below). I chose the German trailer as the best on offer for this blog.

I had to travel for four hours to see Certain Women – not as far as Kristen Stewart’s character, but it would be good if distributors and exhibitors had a bit more faith in films like this. There’s a good reason why Kelly Reichardt excites cinephiles. She makes films that make you think – and feel.

Free download: Notes on La haine (France 1995)

Said Taghmouai, Vincent Casseland Hubert Kunde  in La haine

Saïd Taghmaoui, Vincent Cassel and Hubert Kounde in La haine

La haine is back in the news, partly because of the UK release of Girlhood (review to follow) and partly because of suggestions that a ‘sequel’ of sorts might be considered by writer-director Mathieu Kassovitz in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. An important piece about La haine by Andrew Hussey appeared in the Observer on Sunday May 3rd. La haine (‘Hate’) tells the story of three young men over 20 hours when a police revolver goes missing on their housing block following a protest against police treatment of local youth. The film created a sensation in France on its release and has been re-released at least once. In 1995 the presence of radical Islam was not evident in les cités and would have profoundly changed the film’s narrative– thus the interest in a possible sequel.

In 2000 I wrote a student guide to the film for a ‘York Notes’ series. This has long been out of print but I have used the film several times for student film education screenings since then. In 2012 I updated some of the notes from 2000 and a copy is available here to download:

LaHaine2012Notes

(This is a 28 page document)

Mandela Long Walk to Freedom (Republic of South Africa /UK 2013)

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This biopic is predictably but depressingly conventional. It is based on the Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. I have not read the book but this seems to be both a travesty in terms of history and in terms of politics. The Sight & Sound review suggest that it “may find its natural home in school classrooms ..”: if the reviewer is right I find that even more depressing.

The film is an Anant Singh Presentation. Singh produced films during the Apartheid era, often with a critical edge. The most well known is Sarafina! (1992) based on the successful musical set in an African township. That film watered down the politics: reducing the struggle to individual terms and undermining the role of violence in the liberation struggle. The new Mandela does something similar. The politics of the anti-apartheid struggle are here reduced to simplistic slogans. There is no sense of the changes that led from the armed struggle in the early 1960s to the negotiated settlement of the 1990s. There is little sense of either the economic situation of black people or the values that motivate the dominant white population. As you might guess the dynamics of class are missing from both sides of the conflict. The film has space only for Nelson Mandela himself and his second wife Winnie. The rest of the ANC leadership remain ciphers, even Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu. In fact, we get a fuller portrait of a friendly guard on Robbin’s Island than any other ANC member. The film reminded me of Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom (1987), ands also at times of the same director’s Gandhi! (1982). All three films present leaders whose politics are acceptable to the so-called ‘International Community’: though I think the two latter films work better as cinema. Where Mandela scores is with the focus on the black characters: they are not as in the other two films mediated by white characters.

We do get some of the Mandela warts, though he emerges mainly as an almost saintly character. Both he and Winnie are shown as involved in extra-marital affairs. However, Nelson Mandela’s ‘fling’s are presented uncritically whilst those of Winnie’s are disparaged in the dialogue. This is an important aspect of the treatment of the two major characters. The white minority, including their leaders, are presented mainly in stereotypes. The film is more accurate in depicting their racism and their brutality. The autocratic strain in Mandela’s politics is apparent, but this is treated uncritically, and with little show of opposition. The greatest danger to Mandela in the film’s narrative comes from Winnie Mandela. She seems a more radical character in the later stages, but she is also discredited by her association with the neck lacing in the townships of the 1980s.

The more complex politics of the resistance are glossed over. So events at Sharpeville are presented as a seemingly spontaneous protest and massacre. The Pan African Congress, who actually organised the boycott of the Pass Books, is nowhere to be seen. In a similar vein the youth rebellions in the townships, including the massacre in Soweto, are missing the important leadership of Black Consciousness and Steve Biko.

The plotting of the film is schematic. The actual life of Mandela is tricky to handle: all those years away from the struggle in prison. But the script fails to find a way to tie these together. The early part of the film works fairly effectively, but the latter parts lack coherence. Stylistically the film is well produced. But we see fairly conventional images and set ups, with a fairly conventional score. The film opens in widescreen colour as a young black boy runs through the long grass on the veldt. Such landscape images recur throughout the film: frequently in flashbacks with a soft focus. The action sequences are shot as with a hand-held camera, [probably a steadicam]. They are then edited in a series of extremely brief shots. This does not help comprehension. There are also low-angle shots of Mandela and his fellow leaders. However, this is not Soviet Montage or even Dogme. The film also has any number of overhead shots: a common predilection in modern cinema.

The cast work hard, I thought Naomie Harris as Winnie was the most effective. But it requires more than authentic costumes and accents to convince. The script does not supply great depth and there is a structural problem in the age spans traversed, which make-up cannot hide. The film is also long: I remembered to comment of Mort Sahl [possibly apocryphal] at a preview of Exodus ‘Otto, Let my people go!’.

Apparently the film is performing well. I saw it in a packed auditorium at the National Media Museum in Bradford. Presumably Mandela’s impeccable timing, passing away on the day of the premiere, assisted. It may also be that he had a premonition about the film! Despite the reformism of Mandela and of the ANC political line – demonstrated by the little change for the Black working class even now – they deserved better than this.

The last several decades have seen a series of mainstream film dramas that address the vicious colonial and neo-colonial system – much of it British. Many of these films have also attempted to sympathetically present the heroic struggles of the National Liberation Movements. It is difficult to think of any that have succeeded. They either wish to let the exploiting classes off the hook – as in Mandela or they end up settling for a personalised resolution that misses the point, also Mandela. As with this film many do both.

There was a post-screen discussion at the National Museum. People were generally positive about the film, though they noticed the omissions. Several argued that to reach a wide audience films had to dramatise and simplify. I think this argument ignores the many facets of the industry: star or auteur power, marketing and publicity, and crucially distribution.

Filmmakers have to consider which audience they are addressing. I do not think it is worthwhile aiming for a mass audience if that entails reducing the ‘message’ to what can be accommodated by ‘Western Union’! There are examples of relatively successful films that dramatise anti-colonial struggles – The Wind that Breaks the Barley (2007) for one. And there are films that both dramatise the anti-colonial struggle in Africa and retain the politics. My favourite from Azania is Mapantsula (1988, by Oliver Schmitz and Thomas Mogotlane) which utilises and then subverts the conventions of the genre.

Can I recommend Khalo Matabane’s Mandela, the Myth & Me, shown in BBC Storyville on BBC 4 on January 13th. Presented as a dialogue of voices, it includes radical viewspoints that never made it into the new film biopic.

Women of the Sand Brings Urgency to Timelessness

We received this piece from Andrea Swift at the New York Film Academy. It describes a film that may be of interest to our readers, so we decided to post it:

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Director Richard Wolf has produced more than 30 documentary films in his career, many for international television networks (CNN, BBC, etc.).  Much of his work focuses on the plight of women in third world countries.

As he puts it the, “humanistic values that are deeply reflected in our films… are simple yet gripping because they tap into universal emotions.” In short, Wolf’s vision touches the heart.  But his 2008 film,Women of the Sand, enthralls the eyes, the mind and the soul as well – at least according to the selection committee for Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York.  Last year, the film became one of the select few to enter the museum’s permanent selection – and for good reason.

Women of the Sand focuses on the women at the heart of communities of Islamic nomads in the Sahara Desert, specifically in Mauritania.  An unmitigated, cinéma vérité experience of the women’s daily routines, carries filmgoers into the meager existence of this millennia-old culture and engages us in their struggle against growing desertification.  The visuals are stunning – a sculptural contemplation of wind blowing across shape-shifting dunes that rise and drop.  The occasional trees and bushes are as sparse as the humans who stand improbably against this arid climate. Those same winds also catch the thin fabrics of tents and lean-tos, and of the traditional fabrics worn by the men, women and children of these unsettled communities.  Heads peaking out from inside their moulafas, the women tell their stories of survival in this harsh climate, of the challenges they navigate just to feed, cloth and educate their children.  They also speak of the green plants that come forth in the rainy season – the basis of all that makes life worth living. Their focus is not on the dryness and the more frequent times when food is less plentiful, though to outsiders those stark climatic conditions make it impossible not to contemplate the fragility of life. These “women of the sand” are resilient people who speak of the friendliness of the desert and desert people.  One woman says she prefers that to the coolness she observes between people in the cities she, evidently, has visited.

We also learn that the desert expands by about six miles per year, challenging their beloved and centuries old nomadic ways.  Over a lifetime, that means 360 more miles of largely barren sand will overtake arable land, making those green plants a sparser and sparser presence in their world.  It is a losing battle against scarcity that drives more interaction with non-nomads, disrupting their way of life.  Long term, it threatens to seriously diminish, perhaps even end the nomad culture.

While MOMA selects films for its collection for a broad range of reasons, the unifying criteria, according to the institution’s website, is innovation. That innovation may come into play in the film’s structure, narration or in its success immersing the viewer in the subject.   One particularly striking example ofWomen of the Sand’s immersive quality gives us real insight into the nomad’s experience of modernity:  In a tent on a rug that are all that separates them from endless, depthless sand, flies walk on the women’s hands and wrists, as they type on the keyboard of a laptop computer with the same skill they later demonstrate creating traditional fabric on a loom.  Technology may or may not be useful to them.  One mother explains they do not consider it particularly impressive or important.  But will their children – who attend school in a tent, seated on the ground, feel the same way?  Through a string of such moments,Women of the Sand creates a compelling tension between its exploration of a vanishing way of life, and a simultaneously contemplation its abiding continuity.

Produced by C. Litewski and Lucy Barbosa, directed by Richard Wolf, Women of the Sand is available on DVD (see below). Wolf studied film direction at the New York Film Academy. He also studied documentary production at the Global Village School, also in New York. Part of his signature style is to blend very candid, personal one-on-one testimonies with monstrously out-proportioned imagery that is said to provide a global context to a very intimate story. The production company is Lobo Docs.

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Andrea Swift is Chair of the Documentary Program at the New York Film Academy. She earned her Masters in Fine Arts degree from Columbia University and was the executive producer of the ‘In the Life’ documentary series for the PBS network, among many other credits. Her ‘nuclear folktale’ Deafsmith was featured at the United Nations Earth Summit, won a Silver at the Chicago International Film Festival and took second prize at the American Film and Video Festival.

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A free low resolution streamed presentation of Women of the Sand is available on SnagFilms (with some forced ad breaks). The film can be purchased from the same website on this page or downloaded/rented on this page. The DVD appears to be Region 0 and the film was made in 2003.

Trailer:

Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday, Germany 1930)

This is a rather different sort of film from those produced in Germany at the giant UFA studios. A low-budget independent film with no special effects or gigantic sets: ordinary young people on an ordinary 1920s Sunday. Then one notices the credits – young filmmakers on their first outing with film: Robert and Kurt Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Fred Zinnemann, all to become successful Hollywood filmmakers. They do have the help of two experienced German film craftsmen, Rochus Gliese and Eugen Schüfftan.

The cast are young non-professionals: “a film about Berlin, about its people, about everyday things that we all know. First we consider using young actors. No: the people have to be authentic. So we start searching . . .” (Billy Wilder quoted in a 1930 newspaper). They find Erwin, a taxi driver: Brigitte who works in a record-shop; Wolfgang, a travelling salesman; and Christi, who actually works as a film extra.

The film introduces us to the main characters as they end the working week at their jobs. Then on the Sunday they all spend their free day at the local resort of Lake Wansee. And we follow a typical day’s leisure of young Berliners. Much of the film was shot on the actual locations, in the city and at the resort. Together with the young people this gives the film a real sense of freshness, even eighty years on.

The original release was a silent, without a soundtrack, though sound had already arrived in Germany. So it would have enjoyed a musical accompaniment. At that point it was 2,014 metres in length. However, the film suffered cuts, including the censorship of some scenes. By the time of the revival in silent film in the 1980s surviving prints only ran to about 1600 metres. In 1997 the Nederlands Filmmuseum, working with other archives produced a restoration of 1,839 metres. This now runs for 73 minutes.

Even without the interest in seeing early work by a number of distinguished directors and writers the film is worth seeing. It is an unassuming portrait of Berlin and its working people in the last days of Weimar. It sense of realism looks forward to realist tendencies that grace 1930s French Cinema and the later Italian Neo-realism.

The National Media Museum has a bfi print of the film on Sunday September 9th and there will be a live piano accompaniment by Darius Battiwalla.

Women Without Men (Zanan-e bedun-e mardan, Ger/Austria/Fra/It/Ukraine/Morocco 2009)

The CinemaScope framings are well used in Women Without Men

This film sneaked out on a single print in June 2010 in the UK and I missed it. I only became aware of it when researching A Separation. I’m glad that it is now available on DVD as it proves to be an interesting production for several reasons.

Shirin Neshat is an Iranian visual artist best known for short films that appear in gallery installations. Born into an upper middle-class Tehran family she left to study in the US around the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. This is her first feature film and she wrote and directed it in partnership with Shoja Azari, variously described as an Iranian-American artist and filmmaker. With two artists at the helm Women Without Men was unlikely to be made as a conventional feature and what was produced does not disappoint in that respect. Although ostensibly based on a historical novel by Shahrnoush Parsipour, the film proves to be a visual treat and something of a meditative art object despite some powerful and emotionally charged passages. (The novelist herself, a celebrated figure in Iran but now exiled in America, appears in the film as a brothel-keeper.)

The setting is Tehran in 1953 at the time of the coup d’état engineered by the British and Americans to secure their oil interests, bringing down the government of Prime Minister Mossadegh and reinstating the powers of the Shah. Four women from different backgrounds are featured with three of them eventually coming together in a large but isolated country house – more like a fantasy garden than a real location. The woman who owns the house is the wife of an Army General who has discovered a liberal café society since an old male friend returned from the West. Another is a beautiful but emaciated prostitute. The other two do know each other but they have different views – one conservative and orthodox but the other radical and not prepared to compromise. The latter leads us into the action of the coup and the attempts by radicals to resist it.

The look of the film is deliberate and very precisely controlled in CinemaScope images ‘painted’ in muted tones through a slow-moving camera lens. (The Tehran scenes are nearly monochrome but colour breaks through in the ‘garden’.) Several images are surreal and the overall effect is heightened by the production constraints. Presumably the two filmmakers were unable/unwilling (?) to return to Iran (the original novel was banned in Iran) so the production was based in Morocco. I have no real idea how Tehran looked in the early 1950s (apart from a few newsreel images) but I’m sure that it was probably significantly different from the Tehran of contemporary Iranian films. I have been to parts of Morocco and the locations used in Women Without Men did seem to cry out ‘North Africa’ pretty convincingly. I’m not suggesting that this is a problem, simply that it adds to the sense of ‘otherness’ as I take North African and Iranian cultures to be significantly different. (Neshat says that she thinks Casablanca does resemble Tehran in the 1950s.) Another way to approach the film is to see it as primarily a ‘globalised’ production. One of the women is played by a Hungarian, the film is photographed by a German and scored by Ryuchi Sakamoto and without the support of various European production funds the film couldn’t have been made.

The DVD carries a long and detailed statement to camera from Shirin Neshat who reveals some interesting aspects of the production. She tells us that the film was a long time in preparation in different countries and that it travelled extensively in post-production with different editors in each country. However, two seemingly contradictory factors held it together. The joint Austrian/Iranian design teams were meticulous in their research but Neshat and Azari didn’t want to make a ‘social realist film’. Neshat speaks about her admiration for East European/Russian and Scandinavian films and specifically mentions Tarkovsky as an inspiration. I did sense this in the film – partly perhaps because of the scenes in long shot in which crowds of protestors clashed with groups of soldiers or where the soldiers swarm into buildings. I was reminded of scenes in Andrei Roublev by Tarkovsky (and The Red and the White by Jansco). These sequences are contrasted in the more static tableaux and the scenes with the slow-moving camera. Neshin also speaks of Roy Andersson and I can see the link to his work.

The black of the women is isolated against the white of the men (and of the desert)

What does it all add up to? I was struck by one comment on IMdb in which it was suggested that the film is metaphorical in terms of the women’s treatment by men and the damage this does to the prospects of democracy in Iran. The film ends with a dedication to the revolutionaries in Iran from the 1906 ‘Constitutional Revolution’ to the recent ‘Green Revolution’. The suggested metaphor then develops the house and garden in the desert as a kind of potentially democratic ‘paradise’ (the first shot of the film follows one of the women entering the grounds via an irrigation canal). The gardener/caretaker is one of the few men in the film shown sympathetically. Neshat herself refers to the garden as a central image in Persian culture and especially in poetry as a symbolic place to engage with the spiritual. The narratives of the four women each represent different aspects of women’s lives in Iran. The westernised woman, though wealthy, is marginalised because of her age and is caught between men of opposing views who both patronise her. The orthodox woman eventually comes to see that marriage in this society is a trap. The most dramatic stories involve the radical and the prostitute. The presentation of the radical character Munis is surprising and I won’t spoil it. No amount of distancing camerawork can negate the shock of the image of Zarin a terribly thin woman scrubbing herself violently in the hammam in a vain attempt to free herself from the disgust she feels at her use by men.

I’m not sure why this film received so little attention in the UK (it was promoted well in the US). I would say it is well worth seeing and especially in the context of the other films by Iranian women, both the internal critics such as the Makhmalbafs and the other diaspora director, Mariane Satrapi of Persepolis fame.The two major criticisms seem to be that a) there are too many ideas in the film and b) that it feels like four separate stories not successfully melding into a single coherent narrative. I don’t see the problem with too many ideas. The second is the view of Sight and Sound‘s reviewer Sophie Meyer who points out that each of the stories had first been presented as gallery installations. My response to this is to argue that art films don’t need to offer coherent realist narratives and anyway putting the installation work into a feature enables many more people to see it who like me are unlikely to be able to get to the exhibitions where the installations play.

There is a great deal of useful information on the filmmaker and the film in the detailed Press Pack available here.

Here’s the official trailer which gives a good indication of the style but also a couple of possible spoilers: