Category: Festivals and Conferences

¡Viva! 26 #4: Esto no es Berlín (This Is Not Berlin, Mexico 2019)

From left: Carlos, Gera and Rita

This Is Not Berlin is a stylish and exciting picture set in Mexico City around the time of the 1986 World Cup and shot in ‘Scope with a strong music soundtrack. It focuses primarily on two families with 17 year-old sons at a local high school. At first I thought it might be a conventional youth picture/teen movie. As the narrative begins Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León) appears to be in a dazed state in the midst of a pitched battle between two local high schools. In the next few scenes his taste in music is mocked by his mates. He is with his best friend Gera (José Antonio Toledano) when they come across Gera’s 18 year-old sister Rita (Ximena Romo) and her boyfriend kissing passionately. Next morning Gera is renting out his father’s girlie magazines to his classmates. It’s not long, however, before the narrative develops a rather different feel. Carlos clearly has his eye on Rita but she ignores him until she discovers his electronics skills. When he is able to fix the electronic keyboard used by the band in which Rita is the singer, he and Gera are invited to a performance at Azteca, a new underground club. This proves to be a real eye-opener for Carlos. He is introduced to new music, performance art, new drugs and a developing LGBTQ scene.

This is the fourth feature by director Hari Sama. His career has involved an equal interest in film and music and many of his projects seem to have been autobiographical in some way. He was born in 1967 so This Is Not Berlin has been taken as drawing on his experiences in the mid-1980s. As several reviewers have noted, what he offers is a fairly objective view of young people searching for an identity at a specific time in Mexico. According to this interesting review by Alistair Ryder for ‘Gay Essential website, Sama identifies as ‘queer (but not as gay’). What Sama can clearly represent is a mixture of 80s music and performance art that even someone like me, with not much interest in either, can find engaging and exciting. Carlos is attracted in particular to the art created by photographer Nico, but is he ready for Nico’s sexual advances? Carlos is a very attractive young man and also very creative. It’s not long before he is accepted by Nico’s group and becomes part of the stunts they organise – including a performance piece opposing the homophobia of football – in the midst of the World Cup. But the more Carlos (or ‘Charly’ as Nico calls him) becomes involved, the more he moves away from Gera and his schoolfriends – and his family.

Carlos and Gera chilling out

The film is also a family melodrama. In fact it is a genuine hybrid, mixing several repertoires. I’ve read various reviews, mostly from the Sundance screenings of the film early in 2019 (it was picked up by Samuel Goldwyn Films and released in the US in August 2019). Many discuss the music, the queer discourse and the ‘coming of age’ narrative, but few mention the family, especially in relation to social class. The two families seem to me to belong to a ‘European’ middle class living in the outer commuter belt of Mexico City. Sama in the Press Notes tells us this is meant to be Lomas Verdes (‘Green Hills’). Wikipedia tells me this is 7 miles from the centre and describes it as ‘upper middle class’. But this puzzles me. Two well-known films that have something in common with This Is Not Berlin are Roma (2018) and Y tu mamá también (2001), but in both these cases the families have live-in servants, usually mestizos or indigenous people. Sama’s two families don’t have servants as far as I can remember. He describes them in the notes as “broken families, conservative and dysfunctional”. Carlos lives in what seems a relatively small house with his mother Carolina (played by a criminally under-used Marina de Tavira, the mother in Roma) and his much younger brother. Carolina seems severely depressed and possibly dependent on prescription drugs. We don’t learn much about Gera’s parents until the final scenes. Sama argues that the youth of these families in effect found a family ‘on the streets’ and eventually in the ‘post-punk’ underground. They were the children of parents who had experienced the political upheavals of 1968 and the early 1970s (the focus in Roma). 

The focus on music in This Is Not Berlin links it to Y tu mamá también, but that is a film that looks outward from Mexico City to explore a ‘national metaphor’ and to encounter the mestizo and indigenous peoples of the South West. The only direct contact, as I remember in This Is Not Berlin, between the middle class European youth and the ‘other’ Mexicans, is at an outdoor concert (much like the entertainments in Roma) on waste ground where Rita’s band plays and the hostile crowd are not interested in the ‘post-punk’ synth-based music. The local band (of mestizos?) sport mohicans and play music more recognisably ‘punk’ in the UK sense. I should also point out that the film opens with a quote from Proust and the film’s title comes from a comment, a put-down of Nico, in a brief but telling political argument in which Nico is accused of just imitating European art movements. You are not a true artist he is told. The politics go further, Nico’s friends are accused of “just partying” all the time with AIDS spreading while they take no notice.

Carlos as a naked slave in a street protest by Nico’s performance art group

The music genre question also permeates the family melodrama. Hari Sama has a small role himself as Carlos’ uncle, his mother’s brother. He wears leathers and rides a motor-bike and his musical taste appears to have developed through listening to old blues guys like Lightning Hopkins, whose more melodic guitar playing seems to have influenced Carlos in turn. The uncle also turns out to be the engineer who encourages Carlos to develop his talents and think of electronics engineering as something to pursue. Early on in the film Gera scoffs at Carlos for playing a track and praising the guitarwork which Gera dismisses as ‘country’. Meanwhile Rita identifies herself with Patti Smith’s poetry in a school literature class. There have been criticisms of This Is Not Berlin because it doesn’t have a strong narrative drive. This is odd, since at one point I thought the structure was becoming too conventional and I was concerned about how the eventual ‘high life’ that Carlos was pursuing would eventually come crashing down. I won’t spoil the narrative resolution and I did eventually come to appreciate the mix of cultural and political issues in the film. Having said that, I think it is the case that the film raises too many narrative possibilities that can’t all be pursued. But better too many than missing some out altogether?

Much of the impact of the film depends on the cinematography by Alfredo Altamirano which manages to create a variety of moods through fluid movement as well as close-up work and the use of various devices to create textures. Altamarino does not appear to have a long list of feature credits but he is very experienced in shorts and commercials and his work has been featured at many festivals. He has some interesting promo reels on his website here. Overall it is the combination of music, camerawork and art direction – all the creative units – as well as the performances that present this evocation of a period.

This film seems to be destined primarily for streaming, which is a shame as it would be a wow on a big screen. I note that IMDb records a US rating of TV-MA which I understand is a rating for cable TV and streaming? There is a significant amount of nudity (much of it male nudity ) in the film and it’s interesting that this hasn’t stopped the film’s US release. It was due to feature in the BFI’s Flare LGBTQ festival which has had to be postponed. I hope that it will get a UK release of some kind. There are already three other Mexican films available with links that might encourage analysis and further study. As well as the two mentioned above, I would add Güeros (2014) as another film about youth, music and ‘protest’ set in 1999, but harking back to New Wave styles.

¡Viva! 26 #3: Los Sonámbulos (The Sleepwalkers, Argentina-Uruguay 2019)

Luisa and Ana

This was the second of my ¡Viva! screenings to offer a film by a female writer-director, Paula Hernández, and to focus on a young woman. The other aspect of the film’s narrative shared with the earlier A Thief’s Daughter is the sense of ‘show not tell’ and therefore some work for the audience in understanding relationships. In other ways The Sleepwalkers is a different kind of narrative.

The narrative begins with the sudden realisation by Luisa (Erica Rivas) that something is wrong. She wakes in the night and finds her young teenage daughter Ana (Ornella D’Elía) standing naked in the family apartment with menstrual blood trickling down her leg but unaware of her actions. The next day Luisa and Ana with Emilio (Luis Ziembrowski) drive to a family New Year holiday in the countryside. Emilio’s mother Memé lives in the large family house with only her housekeeper-companion Hilda but today Emilio and his siblings Sergio and Inés and their children will gather for a few days. Luisa is concerned that Ana has not been confiding in her but in Emilio’s family there seems to be a ‘freer’, more ‘liberal’ attitude to parenting. The New Year holiday corresponds to the family summer holidays in European films, particularly those from Southern Europe with hot weather, days by the pool, al fresco meals and always the possibility of tempers flaring and old feuds emerging. When the first dispute/niggle surfaces – Ana and her parents are sleeping in the house rather than the annexe where they usually stay – it is clear that this holiday will have its frictions. The ‘provocateur’ is the appearance of Alejo, Sergio’s eldest son who may be an older teenager or a young man in his twenties – his age and his history as a teenager are not clear. Ana is an attractive young girl, much younger than she looks, who has some memories of Alejo from earlier family gatherings a few years ago. The young man sets out to flirt with both Ana and her mother.

The family are called to dinner . . .

There is also a sub-plot familiar from the family melodrama. Memé has decided she wants to sell the house and its extensive grounds (a stretch of river, woods and a swimming pool) and a couple of prospective buyers turn up to visit but are turned away because of the family holiday. Memé’s late husband Lacho established a publishing house and both Emilio and Sergio are involved in the company, but there appear to be disputes about how it should operate. Though these issues are referred to, they don’t appear to be a central narrative concern, but rather a way of explaining some of the tension.

Luisa shows consternation at something Emilio (in the foreground out of focus) is saying

This is a slow-paced drama with emphasis often on looks and small gestures. I don’t think there is any explanation of why Sergio and Inés are present without their spouses – or perhaps I missed it? Possibly Sergio’s sons don’t all have the same mother. Sergio has three sons. The younger two treat their cousin Ana as simply someone to spend time with in the pool or around the bonfire. Inés has a baby who cries much of the time and she doesn’t really feature as a character. In fact Inés seems to be there almost as an illustration of how women are treated in the family. Luisa shows concern about the stress of dealing with the baby but ironically Memé as the matriarch seems less interested. The tension rises throughout the narrative and leads to a dramatic climax that I did find shocking both for the actions themselves and because of how the escalation of emotion was constructed.

Memé and Luisa at odds

The Sleepwalkers is a skilfully made film. Paula Hernández has had a long career. This is her fourth feature as a director and she is aided by Iván Gierasinchuk’s cinematography and Rosario Suárez’s editing. The performances are generally very good and the mother-daughter pairing is excellent. I read the title to refer to both mother and daughter whose actions tend to vacillate between a clear-eyed sense of where things could be headed, but also include behaviour which seems almost instinctive in encouraging the opposite. Typically, the more Luisa reaches out to re-engage with Ana, the more Emilio seems to block the action as he has other concerns and the future of the marriage is being pitted against his wider family concerns. I’m not sure I ‘enjoyed’ the film but I found it impressive though perhaps a little too slow-paced and I would have liked to know a little more about the minor characters outside the central quintet of Luisa, Ana, Emilio, Sergio and Alejo. I don’t think in the end that the film qualifies as a family melodrama. There is some diegetic music but mostly it’s direct sound throughout. In this sense the trailer below is misleading.

GFF20 #18: Running to the Sky (Joo Kuluk Kyrgyzstan 2019)

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Forging a future

If I had such a list I could now tick off Kyrgyzstan as another country from which I’ve seen a film. It’s an affecting coming-of-age drama where Jekshen (Temirlan Asankadyrov) has to deal with an alcoholic dad and a mum who’s found love elsewhere. Co-writer (with Ernest Abdyjaparov) and director Mirlan Abdykalykov marshals his cast of non professionals well though most of the interest derives from the novelty of seeing a place hitherto outside my knowledge.

The most striking aspect is the way children are bullied, by teachers, into bringing money to pay for such things as the school roof. I’m not judging as no doubt the economics of the country necessitate parental contribution; though I suspect, as in most places, there are ‘rich bastards’ who look after themselves. The film, however, doesn’t articulate the inequalities but focuses on Jekshen who, fortunately, is a good runner and a local tradition of combining a naming ceremony for a baby with a race, for which there is a prize, means he has the opportunity to get some cash independently of his pathetic dad.

The finale, inevitably, is a race for a big prize and the ending is nicely ambiguous.

I also saw two films in the ‘Are We There Yet?’ free screenings of dystopian films, Children of Men and District 9. Unfortunately the current crisis caused by the Coronavirus suggests we are there, though the understandable (in most countries except the UK and US) reaction to this does raise the question why governments aren’t treating the climate catastrophe as an emergency as well. Hopefully we won’t end up in a dystopia as portrayed by zombie movies though the supermarket shelves empty (in the UK) of bog rolls and much else does suggest some degree of irrationality amongst the panic buyers. Indeed I heard one woman exclaim, “I’m buying things I don’t need!”

Children of Men remains a great film; the dystopian focus is mainly on the treatment of migrants so its message is even more potent 14 years on. District 9, however, remains a disappointment. The set-up, degenerate aliens marooned in South Africa, is quite brilliant but the articulation of the narrative, with cliche-driven action, still fails to engage me, although the film was a worldwide hit.

My first visit to the Glasgow festival was a hit too. The brief intro given to most films was welcome and the closeness of the venues meant it was easy to get to the screenings on time even if the Cineworld cinema used was the top floor of a skyscraper.

GFF20 #17: Lillian (Austria, 2019)

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On the road

This is director Andreas Horvath’s first fiction film (he also edited and composed the music) after making a number of documentaries. One of the fascinating aspects of the film, which was the best I saw at the Glasgow Film Festival, is the degree to which it is fictional. It’s based on a true story of a woman, Lillian Alling, who in the 1920s tried to walk from New York to Russia. She may have succeeded. Lillian is set now and, as far as I can tell, Horvath and his star, Patrycja Planik, improvised the narrative as they took their nine month journey across America. Horvath is credited with the film’s concept, using everyday encounters as the basis. Obviously these would have to be contrived as there was a film crew in tow (although it consisted only of five people). It works in a similar way to Borat (US-UK, 2006) where Sacha Baron-Cohen as the titular reporter traversed America showing up its absurdities. Horvath’s intention is to offer a snapshot of contemporray America. Hollywood Reporter states the film was ‘long-in-the-making’ and, if I remember rightly, there is a rodeo poster for 2013; in an interview Planik states shoot took nine months. Whatever the reason for the long gestation Horvath has produced a stunning piece of work if only in terms of the varying American landscapes we see; the cinematography is stunning. Planik is one of the Foley Artists (these produce the sounds we hear and are used in virtually all filmmaking) and the sounds of her walking are slightly high in mix throughout. Although Planik doesn’t show great range in the role, it is a superb performance in what must have been a gruelling shoot.

I think it’s safe to assume that most of the people Lillian comes across are playing themselves. For example, we see the Nebraskan Sheriff preparing for his day’s work when he gets a call about a ‘walker’ and he goes to investigate. He is both oppressive, searching the young woman, and paternal, giving her a coat for the cold nights. One exception is the role of the lecherous farmer who chases her through cornfields which was taken by the production manager, Chris Shaw.

We pass through Standing Rock where Native Americans are protesting against the environmental impacts of an oil pipeline and hear an inspiring speech. Lillian passes through everything implacably, never speaking or reacting much to her experiences.

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Going west

As she reaches the north west of the continent she finds a road called ‘Highway of Tears’ where a large number of young women (presumably abducted and killed) have disappeared over the years. It’s bucketing down with rain and Lillian plods on filmed from behind a window (or lens) which has so much water (tears) on it she can barely be seen. It is a highly poetic shot that captures the moment.

We’re never clear on the protagonist’s motivations, just as we don’t know what were the original Lillian’s. At the start she is trying to get work in hard core porn but as she’s overstayed her visa even that line of work is impossible for her. She’s advised to go back to Russia, ironically described as ‘the land of opportunity’, and decides to walk there after finding a map in a house she’s apparently broken into.

Without spoiling the ending, I will only say, at first, it seemed to be a serious misstep when we meet indigenous people at the Bering Straits and are regaled with an ancient story about treating the natural world with respect. Throughout the journey we hear, no doubt authentic, homey radio broadcasts talking about unseasonable weather and it’s clear that climate catastrophe looms over the film. When I linked the two, the ending ‘clicked’ and it works superbly to conclude the film. It’s a road movie where it’s the spectator that goes on a ‘learning journey’ not the characters; Lillian is a ‘cipher’ on which we can project our own feelings.