Anglophone Canadian films are quite difficult to find in the UK (as distinct from Québécois films) so finding them in a festival is always a bonus. This title promised to offer some light relief from the heavier diet of arthouse fare in the rest of the programme. It was described in the brochure as an SF-romcom and that’s indeed what it turned out to be. It isn’t heavy on the science but the scenario does provide a slightly different take on the romcom, though there are one or two elements shared with the Tamil blockbuster Endhiran (2010) and various US time travel narratives.
James (Jonas Chernick) has long been obsessed with his own ideas for time travel, so much so that he has never properly developed a relationship with his fellow researcher Courtney (Cleopatra Coleman) and he still needs his wild younger sister Meredith (Tommie-Amber Pirie) to keep his daily life on track. He and Courtney work as researchers at a facility headed by Dr. Rowley (Frances Conroy). James believes he is close to a breakthrough in creating time travel technology but several other deadlines/crisis points are looming and both Meredith and Courtney are likely to abandon him if he doesn’t take action. At this point he is abducted by an older man masquerading as a taxi driver. He is shocked to discover this is his future self ‘Jimmy’ (as played by Daniel Stern who has a lot of fun with this role).
When James meets ‘Jimmy’, the science behind the idea of time travel gradually gets lost. Though there is some resemblance between the characters, Jimmy is taller and his facial features slightly ‘pulled out’ – apparently as a result of time travel. More significantly, Jimmy is a livelier, more mischievous and more cynical character than James. What does he want? He certainly wants to stay around for a while and he meets and charms Courtney. He also has the answers to the questions James has been struggling over, but he isn’t going to provide them just yet. In fact he may be trying to stop James making the discovery at all. His message for James seems to be ‘learn to live a little’. Everything finally depends on a new deadline. Dr. Rowley announces a funded scholarship which will send Courtney to Switzerland (cue race to the airport in best romcom style?) Meanwhile, James discovers that Dr. Rowley has a vital piece of kit she has been keeping secret. But will Jimmy try to stop him accessing it?
The problem for Anglo Canadian filmmakers is that they inhabit a world dominated by Hollywood film and TV programmes. Hollywood makes many films and TV series in Canada and Canadians watch a lot of US TV programming – it’s a coloniser-colonised situation. It’s a world I don’t really know and therefore it is interesting to read some of the North American reviews of this film. Cleopatra Coleman is Australian and Daniel Stern is American but still there is something about the film that makes it feel ‘Canadian’. It appears to have been shot in Sudbury, Ontario and there is that calm openness with just the hint of possible weirdness that means it isn’t likely to be American. I enjoyed the film. At times it is quite funny and I liked the characters. The narrative has some warmth and the script by Chernick and director Jeremy LaLonde avoids some of the pitfalls of the genre. Daniel Stern gives the film its energy and Cleopatra Coleman is a joy. I doubt it will ever appear in the UK but perhaps on Amazon or Netflix?
The Lighthouse has received rave reviews and a smaller number of groans and dismissals. I can understand that, but I find myself somewhere in the middle. The film’s strength is its about technical virtuosity and I certainly applaud the cinematography, the set design, the sound design, the effects work and the central performances. It’s worth going to see the film for these achievements alone. Unfortunately, I don’t think the script works quite as well. It’s not so much the ‘content’ of the script but more the choice of structure and the pacing and the handling of genre elements. It’s a clever and learned script, but I did find it tedious at times.
The film is written and directed by Robert Eggers. His brother Max had the original idea for a film inspired by ‘The Light-House’, a two page ‘fragment’ and the last thing written by Edgar Allen Poe in 1849. The Eggers’ script moves away from Poe and in its use of language and the history of myths and legends told by sailors and coastal peoples it evokes Herman Melville. The narrative is set in the 1890s on the New England coast (though it was shot on the South-West tip of Nova Scotia near Yarmouth). Two lighthouse keepers arrive on an island to replace a pair who leave on the same tender. The new men are the experienced Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and the younger new ‘wickie’ Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson). The younger man is given all the menial (and dirty, heavy) jobs. Wake concentrates on the lamp at the top of the tower.
The two men speak little and Winslow tries to avoid drinking alcohol as the rulebook decrees. Wake drinks every evening and eventually Winslow gives in and the two men relax a little. But the work and the weather and the isolation prey on Winslow who begins to have nightmares and strange experiences around the island. On the night before the pair are due to be relieved, a violent storm blows in and the men get very drunk. No boat arrives and the terrifying waves and winds lash the island. There are even darker times ahead.
All of this is delivered on screen in images composed for the 1.19:1 aspect ratio sometimes termed ‘Movietone’ but also used in German and British cinema at the end of the 1920s and early 1930s during the transition to sound on film. To complement the format, Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke chose to shoot on film using filmstock and lenses which recreated the look of the 1920s/30s. However, they also chose to manipulate the images using stronger artificial lights than would have been available at that time. All of this seemingly made the actual shooting process quite difficult for the actors. According to Robert Pattinson in the Sight&Sound special on the film (February 2020), he and Willem Defoe were often very close together to fit in the narrow frame. Certainly at the beginning of the film the qualities of the image are very noticeable as the lighthouse and the ship bringing the new ‘wickies’ gradually appear in the fog. Some of the early compositions making striking use of the vertical axis, peering up at the lighthouse and then placing the characters at the top of the screen. Gradually, however, I found myself getting used to the shape and texture of the images. The only noticeable difference from watching an Academy Ratio print was that the masking curtains in the Cubby Broccoli cinema at the National Media Museum didn’t close to the edge of the frame – presumably there is only a selectable position for Academy from the projection box?
The visual qualities of the image and the sound design (the wind, rain, the foghorn, the steam engine) are terrific. The problems come, partly I think because there are too many allusions to other films, paintings and literary narratives. This in turn suggests a wide range of genres, defined by iconography and generic characters as well as visual/aural style. IMDB suggests ‘Drama’ and ‘Fantasy’. Graham Fuller in Sight&Sound suggests a “gothic maritime horror film depicting a psychosexual power struggle”. He also, tellingly, suggests the film is “less a text than a trove [of visual and literary influences].”
If we take Fuller’s analysis as a starting point, we might argue that there is a core genre repertoire here which comprises a specific location (the North Atlantic or more specifically the North East seaboard of the US/Canada), a specific period (in this case the late 19th century) and specific characters (sailors, whalers, lighthouse keepers and others whose lives depend on the sea) and environmental factors (sea, wind, rain, fog). By extending one or more of these elemental categories we can soon find a whole range of films and other narratives. We can then merge this repertoire with the ‘psychosexual power struggle’ – the drama of two men locked into a destructive relationship. Eggers’ narrative does provide us with a kind of ‘key’ to the narrative when ‘Winslow’ reveals that he has changed his name because he fled another job in Canada, feeling ‘guilty’ for something he did. On this basis, the horror elements in the film could be manifestations of his breakdown exacerbated by the behaviour of Wake. The iconography of his nightmares could conceivably be drawn from his own experiences, if he had heard the tales or read the stories. But as the audience we have seen and read much more. For example, Winslow seems to be terrorised by a gull. It’s impossible not to think of Hitchcock and the birds of Bodega Bay as well as the birds of Greek mythology. The other images that may be nightmares offer similar kinds of references. I’m making this reading in retrospect. During the screening I reached a point where I began to lose interest and I’m not sure why. I can only think that I became overwhelmed by the ‘trove’ of references and lost my way through the narrative.
Fuller’s account of references includes Michael Powell’s 1935 ‘quota quickie’ The Phantom Light, a comedy thriller about murder and sabotage at a remote Welsh lighthouse which I watched a couple of years ago. It’s not a great film but it’s entertaining and I might go back and watch it again. Powell is a good example of a filmmaker who was ultimately a successful ‘artist’ because he made films for himself and for audiences – large audiences who respected wit and intelligence. Eggers is an artist who seems to make films for himself and a much smaller audience. If you are part of that audience you may enjoy the film’s narrative as much as the technical virtuosity and the performances.
Home is an unusual film and difficult to categorise. It seems straightforward enough at first as a documentary record of one woman’s ‘adventure’ over four years (2011-2015) and covering 20,000 miles. Sarah Outen has one prime objective – to complete her long journey around the world using only her own muscle power. She must be the ‘engine’ that makes her travel possible by rowing boat, kayak or bicycle. She can’t accept any lifts and if her kit fails her she must swim or walk. It’s a dangerous and exciting personal trip into the unknown.
All of this seems clear enough but the film’s tagline hints at something else when it reads ‘An outward journey inward’. This suggests that Sarah has two ‘journeys of discovery’ – one concerned with the world she encounters each day, both the environment she moves through and the people she meets, and the other the things she learns about herself from those encounters.
Sarah’s double ‘journey’ also reminds us that a documentary has a narrative just like any fiction feature and this one most resembles the film genre of the road movie. Road movies traditionally set out to find new experiences in different places and to explore how the central character changes as a result of those experiences. The road movie is the archetypal American adventure and the idea of a story that is a ‘journey’ for the central character is also an American idea with Hollywood films often presenting a ‘quest’ which the hero must undertake to reach a final goal. We might ask: “What is Sarah’s goal?” Will she know when and if she achieves it?
But narratives don’t have to be ‘linear’ and they don’t have to strive for specific goals. Sometimes the story goes full circle and the characters arrive back where they started but still changed in some way. What is important is to note that ‘documentary records’ are inevitably ‘narrativised’ – made into stories that are accessible for audiences and offer the same pleasures as fiction narratives. How will this affect Sarah’s story?
In the famous spoof Western movie Blazing Saddles, the hero rides around a giant rock in the desert and discovers an orchestra playing the exciting musical score accompanying his ride on screen. It’s a brilliant way of exposing the artifice of cinema and the ways in which audiences are prepared to suspend disbelief. As Sarah kayaks along a turbulent river or cycles across the desert, how often do we stop to wonder who is using the camera? Sometimes it is Sarah herself but her options are limited. We know there must be another camera operator and a support crew. Home does in fact refer to the support and logistics crew needed to bring the kayak (‘Nelson’) or the bicycle (‘Hercules’) to the right place when Sarah arrives in her rowing boat. Sometimes we even see the crew. None of this diminishes Sarah’s achievement or takes away from the ‘authenticity’ of the documentary experience. But it does refer to a particular filmmaking practice.
Home is edited by the Canadian director Jen Randall of Light Shed Pictures. Officially she is also co-writer and director of the film. It is often said that the meaning in films is ‘created’ in the edit suite. Home is a 92 minute film created through careful selection of shots from hundreds of hours of footage shot by nine different camera operators. Jen Randall started work on the film only after Sarah had returned.
Home is now a film but Sarah’s journey was also a blog, followed by people all round the world. The film is now on release in the UK and also winning prizes at the specialist film festivals for ‘adventure films’ like Kendal Mountain Festival and Banff Mountain Film Competition. The film’s release has been organised mainly through independent cinemas and Sarah has often appeared in person at these screenings to conduct a Q&A. Screenings are listed on the website below and the next appears to be in Peebles in January 2020. When the screenings tour is completed the film will become available on VOD.
Home is extremely well put together and the narrative works. There are many surprising moments and several relationships of different kinds that Sarah experiences over the four years. This certainly isn’t 90 minutes of only staring at seas and rivers and mountain roads – though they do feature of course. Jen Randall has said that the key ‘Eureka moment’ for her searching through all the hours of footage was when she looked at the footage of the Pacific crossing. This gave her a sense of the ‘shape’ of the narrative. It is also the most emotional and dangerous part of the whole story.
Many people say that they have been inspired by Sarah’s story and these kinds of adventures are both popular with film and TV audiences and arguably necessary for our culture. The film includes romance, friendships and Sarah’s own personal battle with mental health issues. This is a film that should get you feeling for Sarah and thinking about what she has achieved.
You can find out a great deal more on these two websites
Not Just Bollywood: 2019 opens tomorrow with a rare screening of Deepa Mehta‘s trilogy of films addressing political and social issues in Indian society. Deepa Mehta is an example of one of the important ‘diasporic’ or ‘exilic’ directors who have offered radical perspectives on Indian cinema and society through their films. In this respect she joins other important filmmakers such as Mira Nair, Shekhar Kapur and Gurinder Chadha. I don’t want to discuss the differences between ‘exilic’ and ‘diasporic’ here, only to recognise that for various reasons these filmmakers have been trained in and worked in other film industries/film cultures but have travelled to India to make Indian films with Indian stories. In the selection of six women who have directed films in India for this mini-season, three of the others, Dar Gai, Anu Menon and Rohena Gera, have similar experiences of training and living outside India.
Deepa Mehta was born in Amritsar before moving as a child to Delhi and eventually graduating from Delhi university. In 1973 she emigrated to Canada with her husband, a Canadian documentary filmmaker. In Canada Mehta developed a career in documentary before moving into TV drama and eventually feature film production. In 1991 she directed a a Toronto-set film Sam and Me which featured an Indian family and the actors Om Puri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Javed Jaffrey as cast members. The latter two of this trio would become important in the Elements Trilogy when Mehta travelled to India to make Fire set in Delhi in 1995. Kulbhushan Kharbanda also featured in Earth made in 1998 and Water, completed in 2005. This last film, proved to be so controversial as a production that it had to be delayed and re-started, losing some of the other original cast members.
Deepa Mehta discusses the background to the trilogy in this Canadian interview which looks back on the selection of Water as the Canadian entry for the Foreign Language Oscar in 2007:
She explains that she didn’t expect that the films would become controversial and that what attracted her were the stories themselves. She saw them as women’s stories, stories about women’s choices or rather the lack of choices that women in India have. The stories are set in different time periods and in different parts of India, but all three stories explore social issues still relevant today. Mehta suggests that she now sees that these kinds of stories are controversial in societies experiencing ‘hyper-nationalism’ because people are encouraged to attack anything that threatens a sense of a set national culture, they feel uncomfortable about anything that wants to question or set up a ‘conversation’ about what has happened and what might need to be changed. The interview was in 2017 in Canada and she refers to Trump’s America but it could be Modi’s India or Johnson’s UK right now, so she’s right to say that the stories are universal.
Fire, the first screening on Wednesday 11th September, offers a story about a young woman Sita (Nandita Das) who travels to Delhi to marry Jatin (Javed Jaffrey) but soon discovers that he has a mistress and no interest in his bride. Sita finds herself in a household of two brothers who share a shop. Jatin rents out videos and Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) runs a grocery business. Ashok, for different reasons shuns his wife Radha (Shabana Azmi) and the two wives find themselves caring for Ashok’s elderly bed-ridden mother with the servant Mundu. The two women turn to each other for a real relationship. Deepa Mehta wrote the script herself but Wikipedia references Gayatri Gopinath as the source for a suggestion that the story is inspired by Ismat Chughtai‘s 1942 story, Lihaaf (The Quilt). Fire is a Canadian film made as a co-production with India. The story and the cast are Indian but the cinematographer Giles Nuttgens is British and editor Barry Farrell is Canadian – both also work in the US. On the other hand the music is by A R Rahman and other creative posts are held by Indians. The film’s dialogue is mostly in English. This choice is not that unusual in India and places the film in relation to some examples of what was known as ‘middle cinema’ in the 1980s in India and what is sometimes included under the heading of ‘parallel cinema’. The film to some extent ‘crossed over’ to a wider potential audience in India because of the subject content. Lesbian relationships were rare in Indian cinema at this point and this attracted protestors and attempts to shut down cinemas screening the film. One aspect of the narrative that was not so accessible for audiences outside India was the ‘play’ with the traditional depictions of Radha and Sita in the Hindu epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana. Mehta appears to have possibly reversed the qualities of the two traditional characters.
Earth carried the title 1947: Earth in India, a direct indicator of its setting during the final weeks leading up to Partition. This story is an adaptation of a biographical novel by Bapsi Sidhwa first published in the UK in 1988 as Ice Candy Man and the later in the US (1991) and India (1992) as Cracking India. Lenny is an 8 year-old girl in a Lahore Parsi family. She is recovering from polio and his very close to Shanta a young Hindu woman from South India employed as the household maid but seen by Lenny as her ‘Ayah’. Shanta is played by Nandita Das and the voiceover of the adult Lenny is delivered as narration at certain points by Shabana Azmi. The production is in many ways similar to Fire (so there is the same mix of Indian and European/Canadian creative personnel), but there are two differences that might make it more meaningful for Indian audiences (on top of the fact that the subject matter is so important in the history of India). First, the central character of the Ice Candy Man is played by Aamir Khan, already a leading Bollywood star and second, the dialogue features Hindi, Urdu and Gujarati with English only spoken by Lenny and her parents. The film was India’s Foreign Language Oscar nomination in 1999.
The Parsi family are close to the British in Lahore and are not part of the growing rift between the Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities in the city. The narrative cleverly weaves a story of romance through the events with Shanta being the object of desire for both the Muslim Ice Candy man and the Hindu masseur. The film must have felt personal for Deepa Mehta who was born in Amritsar only a few years after Partition and she must have heard the stories of anguish for those displaced into either Indian or Pakistani Punjab after the line was drawn and so many were killed. The trains arriving in stations full of those killed after attacks had come from or were going to cities like Amritsar or Lahore. I think Earth may be the film that affected me most in the trilogy. In a sense there is nothing ‘controversial’ in the film, except that it stirs memories and introduces younger viewers to the calamity that was the British partition of India. It does, however, also relate to the contemporary ‘communalism’ clashes in some parts of India.
Water, by contrast, was taken to be a direct challenge to Hindu traditions and appeared at a time when the ‘Religious Right’ was growing in strength in India. Deepa Mehta wrote this story herself with some dialogue written by Anurag Kashyap. Later Bapsi Sidhwa collaborated with Mehta again and wrote a ‘novelisation’ of the film. The film should have been shot in 2000 in Varanasi as the location (as Benares) in 1938 where a young child is taken to a house of widows after the death of her adult husband. Hindu traditions decreed that widows must live away from the outside world. The protests turned violent and the film’s set by the ghats was destroyed. A deeply upset director was offered permission to shoot in neighbouring states where the BJP was not in power such as West Bengal and Bihar, but she decided to postpone the shoot. In interviews she has said that she was too angry to continue and that shooting a film fuelled by anger would damage her artistic vision. Eventually she decided to move the shoot to Sri Lanka five years later. This worked well for the production overall but she lost the opportunity to cast Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das for a third time. The younger and older women’s roles went to Lisa Ray and Seema Biswas. Lisa Ray had appeared in Deepa Mehta’s earlier Canadian film Bollywood/Hollywood (2002) and was just beginning to attract attention from Indian filmmakers. Seema Biswas is probably best known to UK audiences as the lead performer in Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (India-UK 1994).
The narrative involves a meeting between the child widow and a law student follower of Gandhi. This is Narayan played by John Abraham from Kerala who, like Lisa Ray, had been a leading fashion model and was only just established as an unusual leading man in Hindi cinema. But if Lisa Ray and John Abraham raised a few eyebrows in India, the veteran star Waheeda Rahman playing Narayan’s mother was a re-assuring presence.
I wrote about encountering Water on its UK release in an early posting on this blog. I don’t want to repeat those points here and I may have different responses now but the post is worth visiting, partly to follow the links to other writers at the time. As the interview above indicates, Water was a big hit in Canada and is seen by many as Deepa Mehta’s greatest achievement. Its reception in India was more mixed but it had champions as well as detractors. It will be interesting to see what the audience at HOME makes of the film today when contemporary films have become much more explicit and challenging about the abuse directed at women in India which is so deeply rooted in the society. Having recently watched Article 15 and The Incessant Fear of Rape I’m sorry not to be able to attend the HOME screening of Water on Wednesday 18 September and gauge the reaction.
The trilogy is a major achievement by Deepa Mehta and this is a timely screening for the three films.