Category: Films by women

The Mourning Forest (Mogari no mori, Japan-France 2007)

Machiko and Shigeki play hide and seek in the rows of tea bushes

The MUBI streaming offer currently includes three films by Kawase Naomi. The Mourning Forest is the earliest of the three and the other two, Still the Water (2014) and Sweet Bean (2015) were covered on this blog on UK release. The Mourning Forest didn’t make it into UK cinemas but I remember noticing its appearance at various festivals because it has been difficult to see Japanese films directed by women over the last few years and I began to look out for Kawase Naomi films. Eureka/Masters of Cinema brought out a Blu-ray/DVD dual edition of the film in the UK in 2017 – which presumably allowed this MUBI streaming opportunity as the companies seem to link up on distribution.

I think this earlier film, only her third feature after more than ten years of making mostly shorts and documentaries, is more difficult to watch, partly because of its subject matter. In visual terms the film is very beautiful but the focus on a care home which includes someone suffering from a form of dementia might be sensitive for some audiences.

Machiko in the care home’s kitchen

The film is set in the hills and forests of Western Japan in a township, ‘Tawara’, I haven’t been able to find on a map. Nara is listed as the director’s home town and somewhere in Nara prefecture seems a likely location. Machiko (Ono Machiko) is a young woman who has taken a job at a care home outside the town, located in the hills next to a tea plantation amongst the rice paddies. As she begins to learn the daily routines guided by her understanding boss Wakako (Watanabe Makiko) she begins to get interested in one resident in particular, a widower Shigeki (Uda Shigeki, a non-professional actor). Shigeki has a form of dementia which occasionally makes him violent in a childish way. Some reviewers describe him as ‘elderly’ but although he is grey-haired he appears strong and supple in his movements. (He’s certainly a lot fitter than me!)

I’m not going to worry too much about spoilers because this isn’t a plot-driven film and the story-telling style is sometimes opaque so that it took me repeated viewings of some scenes to piece the narrative together. The Press Notes reveal that Kawase drew on her own family experiences and that she chose the precise location because in this area families and neighbours still prepare the dead in traditional ways without funeral directors and bury their relatives and friends without cremation. The film opens with a funeral procession through the fields and a montage of some aspects of preparation for the procession. The film’s title in Japanese means either the place of mourning or the ending of mourning. We get a glimpse of Machiko’s home life which seems to refer to a child who has died. Her husband blamed her for his son’s death.

Machiko and Shigeki play around the home – he is clearly fit and active

The care home appears almost Utopian in the context of care homes in the UK. There are only a handful of residents who are taken for walks in the around the fields and the allotment, picking fruits and vegetables. They have calligraphy classes and one day a teacher comes to discuss philosophy with them – is he a Buddhist monk? There are moments in the film when signs and posters are not translated in the subtitles, which makes these scenes even more mysterious, but we do see that Shigeki’s wife was called Mako and that he sees from Machiko’s calligraphy that her name includes the same characters. The philosopher tells Shigeki that because his wife died 33 years ago she has now become a Buddah and can no longer return to this world. It is Shigeki’s birthday and all he seems to want as a gift is to be with Mako. A few days later Machiko takes Shigeki on a car trip. They head off across the hills but the car fails and they are stranded. When Machiko runs to the nearest house for help, Shigeki doesn’t wait in the car as she requested but heads off in the opposite direction. When she returns, Machiko is forced to look for him. The time they spend in the forest (she does find him) takes up the second half of the film. There is a resolution to the narrative but it is also to some extent ‘open-ended’.

Shigeki in the forest – he knows what he is looking for

I confess that when the car trip began I was worried. Machiko is inexperienced. Shigeki clearly likes her but he has been aggressive as well. But Wakako tells her “There are no set rules”. This isn’t a horror film or a crime thriller, but even so, a forest can be a dangerous and frightening place as well as a place of great beauty and spirituality. We often think of Japan as a crowded and urban society but even on the main island, Honshu, the central spine is mountainous and sparsely populated. I have seen several East Asian films in which forests are much more than just ‘locations’ and I commend the stunning photography by Nakano Hideyo and the music by Shigeno Masamichi which create the textures and moods of the forest. There are two moments of fantasy in the film but otherwise Kawase uses an observational camera and allows us, the audience, to construct the narrative as we see fit given the events observed and the excellent performances of the two central actors.

The Mourning Forest is not an easy watch but it is very rewarding if you stick with it and allow it to work. I’ve seen some dismissive reviews which clearly don’t understand what’s going on but if you are interested in intelligent and beautifully made cinema, I urge you to watch the film.

Giraffe (Germany-Denmark 2019)

Dara (Lisa Loven Kongsli) working on her archive finds

Giraffe uses footage of an animal in a Danish safari park to introduce a story about displacement and globalisation. What follows is in some ways a familiar European ‘festival film’. It first appeared at Locarno, then won a prize at the Viennale in 2019. My first thought was that it seemed like another example of a film associated with the ‘Berlin School’. Writer-Director Anna Sofie Hartmann is Danish but she trained at the German Film Academy (FFFB) in Berlin and this film has Maren Ade as one of its producers and Valeska Grisebach and Bettina Böhler are listed in the credits as mentors/consultants. Maren Eggert has a secondary acting role in the film and she has previously appeared in two films for Angela Schanelec. These names suggest that the Berlin School links are strong. They also signal a film with a predominantly female creative team and a female perspective at the centre of the narrative.

Lucek the Polish worker

Dara (Lisa Loven Kongsli) is an ethnologist and photographer on Lolland, one of the main Danish islands, where she grew up. Though she is now based in Berlin, she is back in Lolland for a few months on a project to document the buildings and the people associated with them who will be displaced because preparations are being made for construction of a tunnel which will link Lolland to Northern Germany. There is very little plot in what is a relatively short film (85 mins). Dara meets various people and delves into local archives to research earlier inhabitants and artefacts. But there is a romance in which Dara, a woman in her thirties, becomes involved with Lucek, a younger Polish worker who is part of a gang laying a cable for services to be used by the construction workers on the tunnel.

My main interest in the film, apart from the aesthetics of its production and the performances, is in the geography of the location and what it means for the economics and sociology of the region. Although I’ve learned something through reading Nordic crime fiction and watching films and TV from Sweden and Denmark, I hadn’t before appreciated just how interconnected the countries around the Eastern Baltic Sea were, and especially how important the network of ferry services is to Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Poland. Hartmann includes various extracts from diaries and personal testimonies in ways which sometimes suggest we are watching a documentary. (Some of the characters in the film are clearly ‘real people’.) We listen to Lucek’s fellow Polish workers who sketch out the economics of why Poles take up contract work elsewhere in the EU since 2008 and these seem like authentic conversations. Lisa Loven Kongsli is actually a Norwegian actor which adds another layer to the film’s meaning with its mix of Danish, German and Polish actors and crew. Maren Eggert’s role is as a woman working on the main ferry to Germany. She has time to simply observe the passengers and she gives us her thoughts about who they are and where they are going – and again Jenny Lou Ziegel’s camera films these passengers in observational documentary mode.

Käthe (Maren Eggert) observes the passengers on the ferry

Dara and Lucek get together

I was reminded in several ways of the French film Fidelio – Alice’s Journey (France 2014) in which a young woman is a ship’s engineer who works with various nationalities, both officers and crew, and has a traditional masculine sailor’s idea about a sexual life in every port. Like Alice, Dara finds a young man even though she has a partner in Berlin and like Alice she is shown to be a highly competent and professional young woman. Both films use diaries and video calls/filmed material to communicate with lovers/friends overseas. A final similarity in the two films is a narrative strand in which the globalised workforce finds itself at the mercy of layers of sub-contractors who come between them and the multinational company who is ostensibly their employer. So in Giraffe, Lucek and his colleagues fear that they might not be paid. I’m not clear on who is paying Dara but she seems to be ‘secure’ in some way. This kind of interaction between workers from different countries often means that conversations are conducted in English, even if in this case, the countries themselves are often geographically quite close. Dara and Lucek make love in English.

The Polish workers meet to decide what to do when they are not paid

I enjoyed watching this film but a quick trawl through other online responses reveals a mixed audience response. In Berlin School style, the narrative is not laid out as a conventional story. Instead each viewer simply needs to watch and listen carefully and piece together their own story. That said, I found some scenes to be humorous and some quite moving as Dara delves into the lives of the people who owned the houses that are to be demolished. The performances are all good and I found simple pleasure in watching Dara at work. Giraffe is currently available on MUBI.

Here’s the only trailer I can find, but no English subs:

Street Corner (Both Sides of the Law, UK 1953)

Anne Crawford as a WPC and Rosamund John as Sergeant Pauline Ramsey

(Nick Lacey offers his view of this film in an earlier posting here.)

Street Corner was chosen last week by the cineaste Carol Morley for her Friday night online film club viewing. It was directed by Muriel Box and written by Muriel and her husband Sydney from an original idea by Jan Read. Since I’m keen to see Muriel Box films, I followed the link to a free streaming of the film. It’s an interesting film for several reasons. The semi-documentary style and focus on ‘social problems’ as dealt with by women police officers manages to combine elements from Gainsborough’s ‘social’ films of the 1940s (when Sydney ran the studio) and the range of social problem melodramas that appeared during the 1950s. The film also relates to a sub-genre about women in uniform such as The Gentle Sex (1943) about women in the forces in wartime or the munitions workers in overalls in Millions Like Us (1943) as well as Ealing’s later The Feminine Touch (1956) about student nurses in the NHS.

The three stories, which are interwoven in this procedural about four women working from Chelsea police station, each focus on an issue which seems to be particularly ‘suited’ to investigation by women. This reads very differently now but when “cops in skirts”, as the dialogue has it, first appeared, they were expected to deal with certain kinds of cases. One here is a child at risk from negligent and potentially abusive parents and the second is about a young woman who has gone AWOL from her WRAC posting. The third is about a young mother who is caught shoplifting and then seems to be falling into a classic ‘good-time girl’ narrative. This latter story is the most extended and leads into a familiar crime story about a bungled robbery and its aftermath. The Monthly Film Bulletin review at the time is rather ‘sniffy’ and refers to what it calls ‘The Blue Lamp formula’. I think the film has some saving graces but I have to agree that the four women do appear to “have the makings of a good hockey team”. They seem very middle-class.

Terence Morgan as local criminal Ray and Peggy Cummins as the 18 year-old mother who has left her mother-in-law and baby while her husband is away

The main problem for the film, which is technically very good in its use of location work by Box’s long-term collaborator Reginald Wyer, is that attitudes towards women and police work have changed so much since 1953. It’s also quite disconcerting that the cast is awash with actors who would later become very well known in British film and TV. I’ll name some of them here but there are many others. Fans of the sitcom Porridge will be amused to see a young Brian Wilde, already ‘typed’ as a worried man. In many scenes, that woman in the background or at the front desk in the police station will be Dandy Nichols, Thora Hird or Dora Bryan. Terence Morgan is typed as the wide boy/spiv jewel thief, aided and abetted by Michael Medwin in painted ties and light-coloured suits. Michael Hordern appears as a rather bemused Detective Inspector with Maigret pipe. But it’s the female leads who provide the flavour of the narrative.

Anne Crawford was well-known for her upper middle-class roles in both Millions Like Us (slumming it until Eric Portman as a factory foreman sorted her out) and They Were Sisters (1945). Here she is still recognisable as an older WPC. Rosamund John who featured in The Gentle Sex is the efficient Sergeant and Barbara Murray is the younger and more sophisticated WPC, caught in a posh dress shop trying on hats when she spies a suspect. To be fair all the action is around Knightsbridge and Chelsea. The fourth woman is the plain clothes WDC played by Sarah Lawson. Eleanor Summerfield has rather a thankless role as the WRAC but she does well and Peggy Cummins plays the would-be ‘Good-Time Girl’ (the subject of the Gainsborough film with that title featuring Jean Kent in 1948). At one point the Peggy Cummins character is in a nightclub (see above) which a police inspector later identifies as a place where “escaped girls from Approved Schools hang out” – a direct reference to the earlier film (which Muriel Box co-wrote).

Muriel Box early in her career

Street Corner is credited as a production of London Independent Producers and made at the ‘Gate Studios, Elstree’. But the film is distributed by GFD (General Film Distributors), the distribution arm of the J. Arthur Rank Organisation. The Gate Studio was a single sound stage bought by Rank in 1950 with the intention of making religious films. Sydney Box decided to go independent when Gainsborough closed but he initially needed Rank for distribution. Muriel Box directed three films for the new company before working on films for other producers. She was in many ways the most prolific woman, as both writer and director, in the British film industry during the studio period.

I’m not sure what to make of Street Corner. It’s lively with some very good action sequences and I found it easy and enjoyable to watch. My main complaint is about the tone of the four women police officers. Rosamund John apart, the other three sound like head prefects talking down to younger girls who should know better. I’m surprised at this because the Boxes had great experience with social issue pictures and working-class characters at Gainsborough and before that for Sydney’s Verity Films. It occurs to me that perhaps the portrayals are realist in terms of the kinds of women who were recruited by the police in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Metropolitan Police was the biggest employer of women officers of all police forces but still had only around 200 women who were given specific roles and segregated from male officers in terms of ranks and facilities until the 1970s and the Equality Laws of the period. The Met is thanked for its co-operation in making the film on the credits. Certainly the film is important not just as a film directed by a woman in the early 1950s but also because of its depiction of working women, using their intelligence, bravery and range of skills in capturing criminals and resolving some social problems. The film was re-titled for the US market (possibly to avoid confusion with an earlier film titled Street Corner). But Both Sides of the Law is not a good title for me – it implies possible police corruption.

A Portuguesa (The Portuguese Woman, Portugal 2018)

Clara Riedenstein as ‘the Portuguese Woman, sketching in the foreground in this tableau composition

A Portuguesa is an extraordinary film in many ways. It is very beautiful and it’s beautifully made with great intelligence. There is so much fascinating cinema out there but so often we find ourselves missing opportunities to see it and instead we allow ourselves to be led towards the mainstream. I have to confess that Portuguese cinema has long been overlooked in my cinema viewing and particularly the work of the great art film directors from that country. It’s not a surprise then that I have not seen anything by Rita Azevedo Gomes before, despite the fact that this is is her ninth film and that her first was made thirty years ago. Although successful at various festivals, Ms Gomes has not so far broken through into wider international recognition. Now, as a result of MUBI’s streaming service, more cinephiles will have a chance to ‘discover’ her.

A Portuguesa is a literary adaptation of a novella by the Austrian writer Robert Musil (1880-1942) adapted by the director. It’s the second story from the collection Three Women (1924). The story is set in the 16th century in Northern Italy where a German nobleman, von Ketten (Marcello Urgeghe), is engaged in military action against the Bishopric of Trent in the Dolomites. Von Ketten has brought his young Portuguese wife (Clara Riedenstein – very good) to a remote area where he has commandeered a small ‘castle’ on a hill at the end of a year-long honeymoon journey. Having established her in the castle von Ketten goes off to war, managing to make his wife pregnant twice in the little time he spends in the castle over the next 11 years. The first part of the narrative is mainly concerned with the ‘Portuguese woman’ herself (I don’t think she is actually named at any point) and how she finds a way to live in this isolated place and the second part deals with von Ketten’s return and what it means for the couple. But to write the outline in this way probably suggests a conventional narrative which this certainly isn’t. This is an art film in terms of both the sounds and images presented and in its narrative structure and (lack of) explicit narration.

One of the lighter scenes in which the couple take a bath ‘together’.

The beauty of the film lies in its staging and cinematography. Gomes searched carefully to find suitable locations in Portugal to stand in for Northern Italy. At one point when the mist appears in the hills, the protagonist mentions Sintra, but I think many of the scenes were shot in Northern Portugal. The approach seems to have been to present moments/scenes from the protagonist’s life in the form of tableaux. The camera often remains static but with significant movement within the frame, especially in the many scenes played out in long shot. In an interview Gomes tells us that she and the veteran cinematographer Acácio de Almeida (born 1938) spent a long time with a digital camera attempting to find ways to produce the exact colour tones that the director required. On my computer screen and TV set, what they discovered took my breath away, especially in the early scene when the noble couple first approach the castle with their retinue. This was accompanied by choral singing which I assumed was meant to be diegetic, though I couldn’t see anyone singing. The music in the rest of the film is more clearly diegetic though. These early scenes are presented in a realist style with attention to details in costume, hairstyles etc. but when characters speak in tableaux, they declaim almost as if on stage. This sense of ‘realist artificiality’ is enhanced by a deliberate use of lighting in compositions, especially inside the castle, which refer directly to the Flemish school of painting. The other element, which also opens the film pre the title, is a form of one-person Greek chorus performed by Ingrid Caven (another veteran at 80, an actor associated with the work of her ex-husband Rainer Werner Fassbinder). She recites/sings the medieval poem ‘Unter der Linden’ while posing in the empty castle grounds in a simple, long black gown which in its style suggests ‘modernity’. Ms Caven will appear at various points in the narrative, sometimes alone, sometimes weaving through the tableau.

In this painterly composition the protagonist meets her cousin Pero (João Vicente) who visits her on his way to Bologna

This use of classical references occurs throughout the film and the combination of these references and the limited narrative information about the long war makes the film difficult to follow as a linear narrative even if you know the artistic references and/or the history of the Bishopric of Trent (modern Trentino) – which I don’t. The narrative is intended, I presume to refer in some way to the Council of Trent, the many years of wrangling in the Roman Catholic Church over how to respond to the Protestant Reformation. The Portuguese woman appears to be an atheist. The original novella seems to be (by reviewers’ comments) part of a collection of love stories. The film doesn’t come across to me as a romance or a particularly erotic story, though the elements are all there to make it so. I think, instead, I found it an interesting narrative about gender roles, feudal society and other historical/cultural analyses. The most interesting of these for me was the presentation of a vital, talented young woman coming to terms, or not, with her situation. As part of this she has strong relationships with the women she has brought with her from Portugal, especially her closest servant-companion played by Rita Durão (who has been a leading player in earlier films by Gomes and also for other women directors). At one point there is mention of “Moorish slave girls” by the the Portuguese Woman but I couldn’t see any signifiers of ‘Moorish’ or indeed of ‘slaves’ – the younger women especially seem well treated by a ‘mistress’ who clearly appreciates them. It’s worth remembering at this point that Portugal was the first European country to establish a global empire from the late 15th century onwards.

The noblewoman is frustrated by her confinement but not in an anachronistic way. We recognise what her problems and her wishes are. The issues for her husband are also rooted in their time but are more difficult to fully comprehend. I assume that we are meant to see his commitment to war as something that stands in the way of a deeper and more sustained relationship with his partner and that his attachment to hunting is necessary to confirm his virility.

A Portuguesa is a long film (135 minutes) and this is for me its major flaw. It is slow-paced and after a time I found that the beauty of scenes began to be overtaken by my wish for more narrative information (perhaps this was because I missed the references I might be expected to follow up?). Even so, I found the film intriguing and aesthetically pleasing. I will watch any of the director’s other films that night appear. The film is on MUBI’s regular rolling programme for the next three weeks. I don’t know if it will then be accessible from the library. Here’s the original Portuguese trailer, French and German as well as Portuguese is spoken in the film.

A suitable writer for A Suitable Boy?

Tanya Maniktala is Lata the central character

The new TV drama serial A Suitable Boy, based on the novel by Vikram Seth begins on Sunday 26 July on BBC1. The novel was widely praised when it was published in 1993 and the serial is directed by Mira Nair whose track record as a diaspora director of both South Asian and British/American films is equally well-respected. Promotion of the serial as the first major production by the BBC to feature an all non-white cast suggests a real sense of meeting an audience demand for more stories by and about people of colour, preferably also made by people of colour. Why then has the Radio Times published a comment piece by Tufayel Ahmed questioning the production’s credentials? The answer is simply that Andrew Davies was commissioned to adapt the novel. Davies is the veteran adapter who gained a reputation (which he tended to promote himself) as a very successful adapter of literary classics who could ‘sex up’ earlier fictions for a contemporary popular TV audience. Tufayel Ahmed admits that he hasn’t seen the serial and he doesn’t mention the Davies reputation for sexing up stories. He is concerned only that Davies is not a person of colour and specifically not from a South Asian background. Because of this he feels that this revelation “takes a little bit of sheen off this groundbreaking project”.

I’m not going to argue against the force of what Tufayel Ahmed says. He goes on to make several good points about the growing challenge to broadcasters to employ more writers from diverse backgrounds and I urge you to read the piece. I’m also not necessarily a fan of Andrew Davies, though I respect his undoubted skills. What interests me are a number of questions about adaptation and television drama more generally. The first point is that this will be a drama serial, not a ‘series’. The serial format is very familiar, especially on UK TV, used for adapting the classic ‘long-form narrative’, the 19th century novel. It is also now used extensively for US TV long-form narratives (but these tend to be much longer than the six episodes of A Suitable Boy which would be termed a ‘mini-series‘ in the US). But because it is an adaptation of a very long novel (over 1400 pages for the paperback), the question of compression comes to the fore, as well as the selection of suitable dividing points and ‘cliffhangers’. The commission will be a big gamble for the BBC, costing at least £16 million (which means £2.5 million per episode, a figure greater than the current mean budget figure for UK features). Because the funding is coming solely from the BBC, this is a very risky venture and arguably dependent on overseas sales. The reaction of Indian-based YouTubers suggests that it has probably got an Indian sale already. The BBC is in a financial crisis making the situation even more important that the project is successful. The BBC is also promoting the serial as a ‘period drama production’ (it begins in 1951) which industry wisdom often suggests is a turn-off for younger viewers.

Ishaan Khattar as Maan and Tabu as Saeeda Begum

I haven’t read the novel and I haven’t yet found information about how long each episode will be, but compressing the narrative into 6 x 1 hour episodes as a minimum will be very difficult and even at 6 x 90 minutes (or 540 minutes) will be tough. The trick will be how to set up the story in Episode 1 with a hook that will retain enough viewers for Episode 2. The most experienced person able to do this may well be Andrew Davies. There may be many others but producers don’t like uncertainty (they are generally ‘risk averse’ as the industry jargon has it) and that’s possibly why they went with Davies. I’ve also seen reports that Vikram Seth requested Davies as adapter. Mira Nair has a long and distinguished list of credits. I’ve seen all bar one of her features and I’m a big admirer but a serial of this magnitude is something new for her. It doesn’t help that her previous attempt at filming a long novel, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (US-UK-India 2004), did not do well at the box office, although I enjoyed it. More pressure on Ms Nair means less leeway on the adapter.

There are three creative ‘writers’ involved in this production. Vikram Seth is Executive Producer as well as the author of the novel and Mira Nair is tasked with presenting the story on screen. The role of the adapter is not to write something new but to shape what exists already, to compress and possibly to restructure to fit the format. The director has to solve the problems the script will inevitably raise and the producer Aradhana Seth (the author’s sister, a distinguished artist and filmmaker) has to ensure that what eventually arrives on screen meets the original production aims. Does Davies’ lack of South Asian heritage threaten this creative team? Scanning the crew list for a shoot solely based in India, there are only a small number of Europeans/Americans such as cinematographer Declan Quinn involved. As a diaspora director working out of the US, Mira Nair has often used a mix of Indian and non-Indian personnel on her films made in India.

My final observation is just to suggest that part of the issue discussed here is the difference between film and TV, especially in the UK. This simply means that, in the UK, TV is seen as a writer’s medium and film is generally discussed as a director’s medium. This possibly comes from the UK’s strong literary/theatre tradition, embedded to some extent in the education system and the tendency for film culture to have been associated with ‘low culture’. The low status of foreign language cinema or cinema steeped in other cultures means that in the UK, ‘Mira Nair’ might not mean as much to non-diaspora audiences as ‘Sally Wainwright‘ or Jed Mercurio as TV writers, nor indeed as ‘Andrew Davies’ as adapter. It is true that many of the so-called ‘Quality TV’ long-term narratives made for cable and streaming in the US have attracted major directors such as Martin Scorsese, but that hasn’t happened to the same extent in the UK.

In conclusion, I want to support Tufayel Ahmed’s call for more writing commissions for people of colour from British broadcasters. However, the best way to do this is to develop a wide range of new writers who can gain experience on a diverse range of productions. These mega projects like A Suitable Boy are usually going to happen through co-productions and their production practices and funding packages are likely to resemble those of the film industry. But that’s another story. One last point, there is a long established writer of South Asian background who has many credits and a high profile – Hanif Kureshi. But would he be a suitable adapter?

I’m looking forward to watching A Suitable Boy. Here’s the BBC trailer:

3 Cuban Documentary Shorts

Four crew members of the freight team in ‘The Load’

The International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA) is offering the opportunity to watch films online with some free and others charging a fee. There are 450 free short documentaries and I chose three titles all produced by students at the International Film School in Cuba, an important institution founded by Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Cuban filmmakers Julio Garcia Espinosa and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and the Argentinian filmmaker Fernando Birri in December 1986. The school was set up to provide education and training for primarily Latin American filmmakers and it has received support from filmmakers around the world. It is best known as ‘Escuela Internacional de Cine y Television’ or EICTV.

The three films I chose were all submitted to IDFA’s student competition. I was first attracted to two films dealing with aspects of Cuban Railways. I hadn’t realised that Cuba saw some of the first steam railways in the world (before Spain) and that although the system has suffered because of the US blockade and the end of aid from the USSR, there has been a revival recently with new stock from China and Iran and older equipment from other countries maintaining diplomatic relations with Cuba.

The Load (La Carga, 2015, 25 mins), dir Victor Alexis Guerrero, is less about the railway itself and more about the men who work on it. We open somewhere on a single track railway through fields with grass that nearly grows over the tracks. It’s night and there appear to be several men in a freight car. At first I was confused by this. I knew there wouldn’t be illegal riders on the train, but I remembered that many Cubans have had to travel in communal trucks, either because they can’t afford long distance buses or services have not been available. One of the men in the freight car is trying to get a light to work with bare wires and a piece of card. Eventually he manages it and we can see that in total there are seven men on the train and they are all crew. They live in a wagon with bunks and a cooking range. One of them is the driver and the others are presumably there to help load and unload the train of wagons. They are based at a railhead in Matanzas, the port city some 55 miles east of Havana. Cuban Railways clearly has some problems and the men find themselves waiting around for a new load. We have already seen their difficulty in moving their open wagons. At one point with the train slipping on the rails, the men are out putting sand on the rails to try to achieve better adhesion.But mostly the men engage in familiar forms of banter including tales about women. Eventually a new load is found for the train and they trundle away with a load of aggregate for building work. It’s nice to just spend a few minutes with a group of working men, bitching about their jobs, just like workers anywhere.

Goats travel on the Hershey train as well

Inertia (All Pantographs Go to Heaven, 2008, 15 mins), dir Armando Capó Ramos, is also about railways but it is a very different kind of film. Its subject is the ‘Hershey Railway’. This railway between Havana and Matanzas is the only electric line surviving in Cuba, all the other motive power is diesel. It was built originally by the US chocolate giant Hershey in circa 1916 to transport sugar to Havana from its mill in the town of Hershey (now Camilo Cienfeugos). Several branch lines were also constructed to enable workers to get to the mill. Some of these are now closed, along with the mill, but tourist traffic keeps the system open. This short film reminds me of some of the Cuban revolutionary/avant garde shorts of the 1960s. There isn’t much in the way of political comment, except for a sequence in which I’m guessing that a group of local passengers look rather bored and disapproving when a musical group boards the train and performs a conga down the aisle, presumably with some tourists joining in. Earlier we have been offered a montage of close-ups of faces and objects and an aerial/overhead shot of the train shed (possibly the camera was running along a rail suspend from the ceiling?). As well as montage, the filmmaker also uses reverse projection, so the same car moves swiftly out of the shed and then back. In the final third of the film, the camera remains static as the train stops and we watch the passengers walking away down the track and gradually out of focus. This last shot lasts 5 minutes and does prove oddly fascinating.

The ideas explored here about how to represent the railway and its passengers are interesting but I’m not sure that they are fully integrated. I would guess that the filmmaker hasn’t got the experience needed to assess the completed film and then go back and re-edit. On the other hand, why should the documentary prioritise ‘coherence’? I was intrigued by the film and I did get a sense of what the railway was like. Perhaps that’s enough?

Teresa and Diana on their raft

Iceberg (2015, 26 mins), dir Juliana Gabriela Gomez Castañeda, seemed to me the most successful of the three films. It is a film about loneliness which manages to compress a maternal family melodrama into its 26 minutes. Although the central character reveals her pain in two short sequences, we also see that she lives in a small community that appears to be supportive. I’m guessing that this is the meaning of the title. Like an iceberg, Teresa appears on the surface to be happy in her community, but underneath she is pining for contact with her daughter and with her mother in the cemetery.

Teresa excited and waiting for the ferry to bring María to her

Teresa lives in a small community on the coast close to Puerto Santiago de Cuba. She is not completely alone because her dog Diana seems to accompany her everywhere. Most days Teresa, who is in her 60s, goes fishing. She has two floats linked together by chains which she places in the water, and then sits back in the water with one float under legs and the other beneath her upper torso creating a star shape. Diana jumps up between her legs and stands on the float and Teresa uses her arms to gently paddle out into the bay. Occasionally she catches a small fish. It’s not an efficient way to fish but it doesn’t cost anything and it’s a nice way to spend the day. In the first part of the film, María, her granddaughter is staying with her, but soon she has to go back to boarding school by ferry. Teresa’s social life revolves around the church and a drink with friends in the evening when she sings. But she is most expressive in her phone call to her daughter in another city who hasn’t seen María for some time. The film is beautifully shot in a ‘Scope ratio and like the first film, shows the ordinary lives of Cubans.

Cuban cinema was the leader of Latin American cinema in the 1960s and it is good to see that the International Film School is still training new talents, especially in documentary. Perhaps if Trump loses in November, the Cuban industry might benefit from any lifting of the US blockade? I certainly hope so.