Search results for: of horses and men

Of Horses and Men (Iceland 2013)

Ingvar E. Sigurðsson plays the lone farmer who proudly trots his mare down the road watched by a visitor from Latin America.

Ingvar E. Sigurðsson plays the lone farmer who proudly trots his mare down the road watched by a visitor from Latin America.

This is a riveting 80-something minutes of bravura filmmaking best seen on a big screen in a good-sized cinema (go here to find current bookings across the UK – often single screenings). It’s set in rural Iceland with sea, mountains and rough pasture and accompanied by a terrific soundtrack (including Icelandic choir performances). Described as ‘Comedy-Drama’ by the distributor, the humour is actually very dark. When I was going into the cinema I overheard an argument at the box office when someone couldn’t understand why the cinema would not admit her child (aged under 15). I suspect that the film would be very upsetting for most children – this isn’t a ‘horsey romance’.

There is no strong narrative as such. Instead we get a number of shorter narratives, mostly tragic with elements of comedy, involving the small farmers on the plain. The farmers all in some way live with/by the wild horses of the region, each year rounding up a number of them and breaking them for leisure or commerce of some kind. There is something of a documentary feel to the narrative structure in the way that the stories lead towards the big summer round-up. The community is quite ‘close’ in proximity but individuals are also competitive/jealous/promiscuous etc. The film’s English title (not a direct translation) misses out ‘women’, at least two of whom are also important narrative agents.

I was trying to think of another film that had a similar tone and I began to think of the Basque film Vacas (Cows) made by Julio Medem in 1992. A tight-knit community in a very specific locale with a strong local culture and some almost surreal local practices. At one point, when the various widows/divorcées are angered that one of their number has got her teeth into the most eligible male by teaming up with him during the horse round-up, the other women suggest that there should be more than two people doing the job taken by the couple. “It’s been a two-person job for a thousand years” retorts an older man.

Of Horses and Men is a début film for writer-director Benedikt Erlingsson and as such it is a staggering achievement, winning several international prizes as well as cleaning up at the Icelandic ‘Edda’ awards. One of the roles is played by the Icelandic actor who is best known by international audiences, Ingvar E. Sigurðsson, and I recognised at least one other actor from Jar City (2006), the last Icelandic film to get a significant release in the UK. Most of the stories have surprising twists which I don’t want to give away but I was intrigued by the reference to a famous sequence from Jan Troell’s The New Land (Sweden 1972) (what to do when you and your horse/ox etc. are caught in a snowstorm). The relatively few Icelandic films I’ve seen have all had ‘noirish’ features. The short film Whale Valley (Iceland-Denmark 2013) shares the dark tone and appears to have been shot in a similar location.

I enjoyed the film very much, but I turned away from the screen a couple of times since I’m squeamish about many forms of violence or medical procedure. Will the film please horse-lovers? I don’t know, but I think they will appreciate the representation of the horses (beautifully photographed) and the realism of certain scenes. Be warned, however, that the film ends with the message that all those taking part in the film are horse lovers and that “no horses were harmed during the making of the film”. Some pretty good CGI or VFX then, I think!

GFF19 #12: Woman at War (Kona fer í stríð, Iceland-France-Ukraine 2018)

Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) is the ‘Woman at War’

This was the most enjoyable film I watched in Glasgow. Most of the time I was on the edge of my seat cheering. The hero of this fairy tale, as the writer-director calls it, is Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir). Halla is a woman in her forties, living alone and seemingly happy with her ‘crusades’ (and the name ‘Halla’ refers to one of the last Icelandic outlaw’ characters in the 17th century)’. Halla has three passions – leading a choir, taking care of the planet and protecting her local landscape. It’s these last two which motivate her declaration of war on heavy industry and the power company. Her heroes are Nelson Mandela and Gandhi. The film’s narrative begins with the one woman war already well under way. A large metal smelting plant has been built close to Halla’s town and power is brought to it by overhead lines which snake across the mountains. The Chinese are said to be interested in investing in the smelter, so protecting it is high on the government agenda. Halla has already managed to cut the power supply more than once and now she has bigger plans. Meanwhile, the company and the government have brought in security forces, the CIA and the latest surveillance technologies to stop her (though they don’t actually know who is causing the power losses yet). But Halla is very fit and resourceful and has some clever ideas. She might not be a superhero, but she is a tough adversary.

The narrative has a key twist which I won’t reveal and it has a sub-plot which goes some way to explaining the film’s co-production status. Halla applied some time ago to adopt a little girl orphaned after the fighting in Ukraine. This is a bureaucratic process that appears to be heading for a resolution just as Halla is about to launch her biggest attack. She desperately wants the child but how would her arrival affect Halla’s campaign? 

Halla is a popular ‘woman about town’. Surely she can’t be a saboteur?

The film works because of the wonderful central performance and the comic understanding of co-writer and director Benedikt Erlingsson whose previous film was the cult hit Of Horses and Men (Iceland 2013), which I also enjoyed (and which also featured Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir). The comedy is in the way Halla evades capture and outwits the security forces, but pleasure is also generated by the careful planning procedures and exciting action scenes. I note from going back to a film still from Of Horses and Men, that Erlingsson seems to have repeated the idea of a lone Spanish traveller on a bicycle who is a kind of ‘silent witness’ to all the trouble Halla is causing (and since the authorities don’t know the identity of the saboteur, this poor Spaniard is arrested on the grounds that he is an alien). I wonder if this character played by Juan Camillo Roman Estrada is set to appear in Benedikt Erlingsson’s future films? The other big attractions in the film include the Icelandic landscape (beautifully presented in ‘Scope by Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson) and the music. Halla has her own musical accompaniment physically in place with her as she tackles her mission, a wonderful touch. The euphonium is an inherently comic instrument for me. Icelandic films seem to thrive on a certain kind of dark humour. If you enjoyed Rams and Under the Tree, you should certainly enjoy this. 

Woman at War was screened in Critics Week at Cannes in 2018 and it has been acquired for UK distribution by Picturehouses so it should appear later this year. Don’t miss it. The main trailer for the film gives away the twist so here is a much shorter US teaser:

Rams (Hrútar, Iceland-Denmark-Norway-Poland 2015)

rams_poster

These are my (slightly edited) notes distributed for a screening of the film in 2016.

Rams was a surprise arthouse hit in the UK in 2016. It was promoted as a dark comedy about a pair of brothers who have fallen out though they live close by each other on two separate farms. What brings them back into contact is an outbreak of disease among the local sheep and their farmer’s reluctance to follow government guidelines on disease control. For some audiences the film is dark enough to be a tragedy, but either way it seems to have captured the imagination of UK audiences.

Iceland has one of the highest per capita cinema attendance rates in the world. Whatever the reasons for this (long, cold nights with little to do?), it does mean a vibrant local film culture and a recent history of notable films that have won prizes at international festivals. For example, Volcano (Iceland-Denmark 2011) won the New European Cinema Prize at Bradford International Film Festival in 2012. Although a winner around the world, no-one was prepared to go on and release the film in the UK. The lead in Volcano was played by Theodór Júlíusson, now one of the two brothers in Rams. We should be grateful that Soda Pictures gambled and put Rams into distribution. Perhaps it was the leavening effect of humour which allowed Rams into distribution? The other recent Icelandic film to get a UK release, Of Horses and Men (2013) is also a ‘rural comedy’.

Like most Icelandic film productions (and TV serials like Trapped, on BBC4 early in 2016), Rams is a co-production involving Danish as well as Icelandic public funds. The budget for the film was around €1.5 million (about the same as the average for low budget UK films). Around 10-12 films are made in Iceland each year. The links to Denmark are ‘post-colonial’ in Iceland. They are necessary for such a small country, though after 1945 Iceland began to turn more to the US and the UK (the relationship with the UK has sometimes been similarly tense – note the aside about disease imported with British livestock in the film). Polish involvement in Rams perhaps reflects the fact that Poles are the biggest migrant group in the country. Iceland’s population is only 330,000 – less than Bradford and less than half the population of Leeds. Nearly two-thirds of the population live in the ‘capital region’ of ‘Greater Reykjavik’. Emotional dramas like Rams can be quite intimate. Population density outside the capital region is very low and people know their neighbours well. Family disputes stand out.

Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) checks the fence between the two properties – the houses are shown in the background

Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) checks the fence between the two properties – the houses are shown in the background

Director’s statement

Rams was written and directed by Grímur Hákonarson, a young man still in his 30s who has made an affecting film about two brothers in their sixties. Hákonarson began his career working on documentaries and he also has experience of working with sheep. An interview with him is available on the BFI Player series (free to watch): https://player.bfi.org.uk/film/watch-rams-qa-with-director-grimur-hakonarson-2016/

Hákonarson trained in Prague and in the interview he explains that his instinct is to show rather than ‘tell’ as a Hollywood film might do. This means that as an editor, he always tries to cut the dialogue and that as a documentarist he is spontaneous – sometimes shooting scenes not in the script because they might offer something in the edit. For example, a scene in which one of the brothers, Gummi, shovels snow from outside his door was not in the script but now has meaning in the final edit.

Many of the incidents in the film that seem absurd or slightly surreal are in fact based on real incidents, including the trip to hospital and sheep in the basement. The central story is inspired by a true story the filmmaker learned from his father and some of the extras who appear in the film are local farmers. The film does confirm the old adage that the more ‘real’ a filmmaker wishes a film to appear, the more artifice is required. In this case that means a long period of preparation, including a search for amenable sheep (most sheep would simply run away from the filmmakers and Iceland has nearly 500,000 sheep), finding the two houses close together etc. Though the region of Iceland depicted in the film (in the North West) does have heavy snowfall in winter, it was still necessary to spend money on artificial snow (and CGI snow) for some scenes. Two sheep died ‘naturally’ during the filming and through use of CGI the two dead sheep could be used to show a flock being culled.

Tradition and family

Iceland is a ‘young country’ in terms of population profile with a median age of 35 and a high birth rate by European standards. But it is also a culture in which traditions are important as well as close family ties. The director has stated that he sees the ending of the film as symbolic.

References

Statistics on Iceland from: https://issuu.com/hagstofa/docs/icelandinfigures2015

Buck and the Preacher (US 1972)

Sidney Poitier as a Western hero

Following the release of the Harry Belafonte ‘bio-documentary’ Sing Your Song in UK cinemas, I decided to look at some of the Belafonte movies available on DVD. In all the coverage of the new documentary relatively little has been said about Belafonte’s film work – which though not extensive was important in the development of African-American cinema, not least because the actor-singer produced his own films at a time when few African-Americans had any direct power in the industry. Belafonte’s second independent production company, Belafonte Enterprises, made the film in conjunction with Columbia. Belafonte took the second lead, but the star and director of the film was Sidney Poitier (who took over from the first director, Joseph Sargent). Ruby Dee, often paired with Poitier as an actor and with Belafonte as an activist, was billed third. The script was by the distinguished TV writer Ernest Kinoy who had written another Sidney Poitier script, Brother John, a year earlier and who would go on to contribute scripts to the TV serial Roots (1977) and its sequel in 1979. The music for the film was composed by Benny Carter, the great jazz band leader, and includes contributions from Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

Buck and the Preacher belongs to the cycle of ‘revisionist Westerns’ in the early 1970s when the counter culture and the anti-war movement in the US managed to find an outlet in the New Hollywood. This was the period of Soldier Blue (1970) and Ulzana’s Raid (1972), but the most popular Western of the 1970s was Mel Brooks’ comedy Blazing Saddles (1974). What links these three very different films is a debunking of the mythology of the West and a reappraisal of the representation of characters who would later be known as ‘African-Americans’ and ‘Native Americans’. This same period also saw the commercial success of a range of ‘Blaxploitation’ films, led by urban crime thrillers like Shaft (1971) and this development also included Blaxploitation Westerns, especially the cycle of films starring Fred Williamson – The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972), its sequel The Soul of Nigger Charley (1973) and Boss Nigger (Black Bounty Hunter, 1974). The creation of Black ‘super-heroes’ in different settings attracted audiences (partly because of the provocative titles which created controversy) but didn’t really engage with the Western myths or the conventions of the genre as such. In his magisterial BFI Companion to the Western (1971), editor Ed Buscombe argues that Buck and the Preacher did precisely that – and that makes it an important film both for African-American cinema and the Western.

Outline

The narrative focuses on an aspect of American history largely neglected by Hollywood – the attempt by freed slaves from the South, after the Civil War ended, to head West on wagon trains, seeking new lands. Poitier plays ‘Buck’, an ex Union Cavalry sergeant, who sets himself up as a wagonmaster who will pilot wagon trains through hostile territory. He makes a deal with the local Native American chief to allow the wagon trains an unhindered passage, but he also has to battle a band of ex-Confederate soldiers. These men have been hired by plantation-owners in the South to drive the freed slaves back into low-paid employment in the cottonfields and their tactics are vicious and uncompromising. Ruby Dee plays Buck’s wife and Belafonte plays a con-man preacher who clashes with Buck but eventually forms an uneasy alliance with him to fight the ex-Confederates.

Analysis

The history of African-American cinema is usually presented via three distinct phases in Hollywood and then a question mark about what is happening today. In the first phase early American cinema and Hollywood in the silent era drew upon a range of Black stereotypes that had been developed in the nineteenth century. Donald Bogle’s ‘Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films’ revised in 1992 has the main title of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks. These five types defined the roles offered to Black actors in mainstream Hollywood (although initially, following the practices of minstrelsy, white actors ‘blacked up’ for some roles). In the 1930s Black entrepreneurs struggled to offer an alternative to this Hollywood condescension but they did manage to produce low-budget independent Black films exploring popular genres – including Black Westerns such as the ‘Western Musical’ Harlem on the Prairie (1937) and the much earlier The Bull-Dogger (1922).

Hollywood eventually reacted to the potential of the Black popular audience with the gradual development of mainstream films with Black themes – and predominantly Black casting – by the late 1940s and early 1950s when Poitier and Belafonte were young actors seeking work. This was the second phase of African-American cinema with films that were presented as ‘liberal’ dramas attempting to deal with some elements of social realism. However, the old stereotypes remained in place. Sidney Poitier was the 1950s ‘good Negro’, essentially a ‘Tom’ derived from the character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ruby Dee was the ‘good Negro wife’ and Harry Belafonte was seen as the ‘beautiful, sexy young man’ – the ‘Buck’ (which he resisted strongly and which no doubt was one of the reasons why he focused more on his musical career). The third phase was associated with the Blaxploitation cycle which critiqued the old stereotypes and the most immediate signal of change was evident in the casting of Poitier, quite literally, as ‘Buck’ with Ruby Dee still his wife, but now supporting him in actions which under the conventions of the Western represent resistance to the dominant ideology. Meanwhile, Belafonte is cast as the ‘Preacher’, a con-man role which featured in several of the earlier Black Westerns of the 1930s/40s.

Harry Belafonte as the long-haired ‘Preacher’

Buck and the Preacher is partly a comedy and that may be both why the film was a relative commercial success, but also why it hasn’t perhaps been given the status it deserves. As Ed Buscombe points out, the script is intelligent and knowing in its play with the conventions and the performances are very enjoyable. Poitier doesn’t just play the ‘Buck’, he overplays the role, sporting two mini-howitzers rather than conventional six-guns. There is an exhilaration in the way in which all three leads become ‘Western heroes’ and Bogle tells us that Black audiences cheered at the sight of the three heroes racing their horses across the screen pursued by a sheriff’s posse – I won’t spoil the narrative by revealing why they are on the run. The smiles are more wry in the key scene when Buck negotiates with the Native American chief who responds to the argument that Black and Red men have both suffered at the hands of the Whites by pointing out that Buck had served in the Union Army. This again feels like a commentary on Poitier’s previous roles in Hollywood – as well as, perhaps, a comment on the way in which Black soldiers had become a crucial element in the US Army in Vietnam.

I highly recommend the film as an enjoyable Western and a film that at least lifts a corner of the carpet under which the African-American experience of the ‘Old West’ has been carefully swept by Hollywood. You can download my notes on Harry Belafonte and Hollywood here: BelafonteNotes