Category: Films by women

Love Education (Xiang ai xiang qin, China-Taiwan 2017)

Xiaoping, Weiwei and Huiying visit the village and the burial ground

Love Education is a Chinese family melodrama presented as a ‘quality film’ which has made appearances at major film festivals in Asia such as Busan and Hong Kong, winning several prizes. Strangely, it doesn’t seem to have made much impact outside East Asia, despite being a film by the celebrated Taiwanese singer, actor, writer and director Sylvia Chang. I was just able to catch it on its UK MUBI run via VOD. Sylvia Chang acted in Ang Lee’s Eat Man Drink Woman (Taiwan-US 1994), a similar kind of family melodrama which got a wider circulation in the West, presumably because of Lee’s American contacts. I was reminded of Lee’s film but oddly I thought Love Education was in some ways more ‘universal’ as a narrative.

Nanna with one of the younger men from the village

‘Love Education’ seems a strange English title. Google suggests that the Mandarin title was originally ‘Love and Love’, which isn’t much clearer but makes more sense at a simple level. The story pivots around Sylvia Chang’s own character Qiu Huiying, a woman in her fifties approaching the expected retirement age for a female school teacher in an unnamed ‘second tier city’ in the PRC. The narrative begins at the bedside of Huiying’s dying mother who is having visions of joining her husband in paradise. (Short fantasy/dream sequences feature a couple of times in the film.) Huiying is desperate to hear her mother’s dying words and convinces herself that she has asked to be buried with her husband. This is problematic since the grandfather’s remains have been returned to the village he left way back in 1946. Huiying determines to go the village, exhume the remains and rebury them in the city. She sets out with her patient and probably long-suffering husband Yin Xiaoping (played by the Fifth Generation director Tian Zhuangzhuang) and her more wilful daughter Weiwei (Lang Yueting). But when the trio arrive they discover that ‘Nanna’ (Wu Yanshu), grandfather’s first wife, has vigorously defended his remains since they were returned to the village in 1996. Despite not having seen him for 50 years, Nanna still believes he is her husband and she is determined to join him in his grave when her time comes.

Da and Weiwei on the train

Weiwei has a job with a TV company. She films the melée when Huiying tries to have the grave opened and Nanna physically defends it (with the support of the villagers). This footage will lead inevitably to media coverage – in the week which has seen ITV taking The Jeremy Kyle Show off air in the UK this seems even more tragic. As well as this central narrative, there are two or three sub-plots, the most developed of which involves Weiwei and her boyfriend, Da, a musician. Huiying and Xiaoping also have their own minor sub-plots not directly linked to the central narrative. The title could refer to the three family members and Nanna, each of which has to learn about/reflect on what ‘love’ means in their various relationships.

I think that most of the reviews have focused on the family relationships, comparing the film with an earlier Sylvia Chang film, 20:30:40 (HK-Taiwan-Japan 2004). I’ve not seen this film which deals with three women at those age points in their lives. Clearly there is a parallel in Love Education with Weiwei in her 20s, Huiying in her 50s and Nanna nearly 90. However, I’m surprised that relatively few comments have been made about the satirical possibilities of the central issue of the burial rights. The three women represent both the personal, familial issues the three women face but also the three different periods of Chinese social history. This is where I think the narrative is universal. It is about tradition v. modernity, rural v. urban and social class divisions about cultural norms. I was reminded strongly of the Cuban satire on bureaucracy by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Death of a Bureaucrat (1966), in which a widow cannot claim her pension because her husband’s ‘worker’s card’ has been buried with him and she needs the card to get an exhumation – cue bureaucratic meltdown. There are many other similar stories I’m sure. One that comes to mind is Guelwaar (Senegal 1992), Sembène Ousmane’s satire on religion and politics. A different issue (a Christian political activist has been buried in a Muslim cemetery) but the same sensitivities about burial rights and exhumation. In Love Education, Nanna is the pre-revolutionary peasant woman who is married at 17 in 1945 when the Civil War is replacing the war against Japan. Her husband leaves to seek work a year later and she doesn’t see him again but she remains loyal and her ideas about ‘love’ are represented by the ‘chastity arch’ built on the outskirts of her village. Huiying is the single child of born in the late 1950s/early 1960s who would be a child/young teenager during the Cultural Revolution (and would also ‘lose’ her husband Xiaoping to the PLA while she presumably trained to be a teacher. Weiwei, born in the 1990s is the ‘beneficiary’ of the PRCs rapid economic growth during her lifetime. If we accept this then we have to try to understand how the current society responds to the two older women’s claims to ‘rights’ to a burial place/resting place for the ashes of the grandfather. The city records before 1978 have been lost and with them the proof of a 1953 wedding. In the village, Nanna has no evidence that she was formally married, even though the villagers accept that she was.

Love Education film

Xiaoping and Huiying. What kind of a marriage do they have?

I was partly pushed down the route of satire/social commentary by memories of a number of Zhang Yimou films. Perhaps I was prompted by the casting of Tian Zhuangzhuang? Just two examples: in The Story of Qui Ju (1992), Gong Li plays an unlikely peasant woman who pursues a complaint against a village chief through several tiers of Chinese bureaucracy. That film was received badly by officials but Not One Less (1999) was seen in the West as pandering to the same authorities. A 13 year-old schoolgirl Wei is left in charge of a remote village school. When a boy leaves the village she sets out to find him to fulfil her task of keeping all the children in school. In this she is eventually helped by a sympathetic TV crew who feature her story on the local news. I’m not suggesting that Sylvia Chang intended any references to the films I’ve mentioned or that she intended any kind of ideological analysis in her social commentary. Audiences will read films as they see fit. All I would say is that Love Education is worth analysis into what it might be saying. It’s interesting, for instance, that Weiwei is to some extent ‘redeemed’ by the narrative – she is whiney and brattish in the opening scenes – and she befriends Nanna in unexpected ways. She isn’t directly related to Nanna but the closeness of grandchildren and grandmothers is again a universal phenomenon. But how do we read it here.

Overall, I thought all the performances were very good – Xiaoping and Da as characters are more involved in the narrative than my outline might have suggested. The film is beautifully photographed by Mark Lee Ping-bin, well-known for his work with Hou Hsiao-hsien and other auteur directors. The photography is matched by the editing of Matthieu Laclau who has worked on the last three Jia Zhang-khe films. The music score, which I enjoyed very much, is by Huang Yun-Ling.

I’ve Got the Blues (Hong Kong 2018)

Angie Chen and Wong Yan-kwai . . . and the cat

This unusual documentary played at HOME in Manchester with a Q&A featuring the director Angie Chen. It was part of a mini-season of Ms Chen’s work and another contribution to HOME’s year-long programme presenting women  working in global cinema. Angie Chen, born in Shanghai, raised in Hong Kong and Taiwan, trained in the US and returned to work in Hong Kong Cinema in the 1980s as part of the Hong Kong New Wave.

I’ve Got the Blues is a very entertaining and thought-provoking work that ‘presents’ the artist Wong Yan-kwai, popularly known as ‘Yank’, and in doing so explores questions about how we might approach documentary films and film narratives more generally. What it doesn’t do is try to ‘explain’ or analyse Yank’s work as a painter. Partly that’s because he expressly forbids anyone filming him painting and also because he refuses to discuss what his paintings ‘mean’ or what they ‘represent’. He’s the one who says he simply ‘presents’ his work. The other aspect of his story which struck me forcibly is that he is clearly a very accomplished musician, photographer and writer with a deeply felt sense what it means to be an ‘artist’ (though he refuses that title!).

A rare shot of Yank at work

Yank went to Paris to study to be a painter and lived there for some time before returning to Hong Kong. He and Angie Chen have known each other since the 1990s. Angie said that although she knew Yank, she didn’t actually know that much about his life. She set out to make a documentary without knowing exactly what kind of film it might turn out to be. In turn Yank clearly didn’t want to be in a conventional film and he persistently thwarted the filmmaker. As well as refusing to be filmed during his work as a painter, he also challenged the filmmaker saying that she had an agenda and he would not go along with it. Angie Chen’s solution to this was quite neat. She organised a shoot of a meeting she had with Yank during which they both seemed to get angry, shouting at each other about what they would and wouldn’t do. She uses this scene close to the beginning of the film and close to its ending. She also persuaded Yank to film himself at work.

Yank with his guitar, surrounded by his work. Will Angie sing?

Once ‘in’ the film, Angie goes on to appear in it regularly, joining Yank for a trip to a Macau exhibition, joining a musical evening in which she sings the blues of the title with Yank on guitar and meeting his two grown-up daughters (at separate times). Yank is cantankerous but also playful and witty. Most of his interactions with friends are accompanied by what I can only describe as ‘heroic smoking and drinking’. Angie told us that sometimes shoots at his home or a local bar might go on until the early hours.

An impromptu ‘jam’. This might be in Macau?

Reflecting with Rona on the experience of watching the film and enjoying the lively Q&A chaired by Prof. Sarah Perks (who met Angie Chen many years ago on one of her regular trips to HK), we agreed on a couple of points. First, this is a fascinating film about documentary practice. I was surprised that Angie Chen suggested it was an unusual strategy for a documentary filmmaker to appear in her film. Perhaps I misunderstood what she said, but it is now quite a common practice to use what Stella Bruzzi calls the ‘performative’ mode of documentary (in New Documentary, Routledge 2006). Angie Chen is certainly a ‘player’ in her film, often acting as a form of provocateur – causing Yank to react in different ways. Second, although the doc. is well-structured and entertaining, there is a distinct tension between the playfulness of the Angie-Yank relationship and two narrative questions which are not resolved or ‘explained’. The first of these refers to Yank’s relationship with his daughters, seemingly with different mothers, both with French backgrounds. The mothers seem to be completely marginalised in the narrative without any comment whatsoever. The second intriguing question is about Yank’s politics, a topic explored very interestingly in a couple of scenes but then somehow left dangling. I would need another viewing to be clear about what was actually said. There is a Region 3 DVD from Hong Kong and there may be others available (that question came up in the Q&A).

I realise that I haven’t said anything about Wong Yan-kwai’s paintings but then that’s not really what the film is about. I do want to know more about his time in Paris and about his relationships and his politics. I also want to see more of the films by Angie Chen. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get to Manchester to see the other films Angie had brought with her from Hong Kong. I want to thank Angie Chen for bringing her film and entertaining us in the Q&A, Rachel Hayward and Andy Willis for organising the mini-season and Sarah Perks for chairing the Q&A. And I must not forget the cat, who tolerates Yank and often appears on screen with him.

Here’s a trailer for the film. It’s a good trailer that gives a sense of the film and intrigues the viewer:

(This posting has been edited to correct details of the event.)

Beauty and the Dogs (Aala Kaf Ifrit Tunisia-France-Sweden-Norway-Lebanon-Qatar-Switzerland, 2017)

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Lost in a Kafkaesque nightmare

Like SoniBeauty and the Dogs relies on sequence shots (scenes shot in one take) to drive the narrative and writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania brilliantly harnesses the acting talent to portray a nightmarish series of events during one night. We meet the protagonist, Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani), during the credits confidently preparing for a disco but the following eight chapters (signed by intertitles) show her disintegration after she has been raped (mercifully this ‘chapter’ is omitted). The film then follows her attempts to report the crime, aided by a friendly young man she’d fancied at the disco.

Ben Hania isn’t just recreating events, which are based on a true story, but commenting upon post-revolution Tunisia, after President Ben Ali was deposed in 2011. She shows the forces of reaction remain strong as, for example, Mariam is refused treatment at a hospital without ID, which she lost during the attack. Comments are made about her (slightly) revealing dress suggesting she somehow deserved to be raped. Such sentiments are not absent in western judiciary and media so we shouldn’t feel smug about how ‘backward’ this is.

Most of the action takes place during one night, beautifully shot by Johan Holmquist (his only imdb credit!). Variety complained that ‘Ben Hania’s almost chilly mise en scène lessens the emotional impact of the protagonist’s truly nightmarish plight’ and the narrative was unbelievable because so much happens to the victim. I struggle to understand how, given the Al Ferjani’s incredible performance, the emotional impact can be anything other than staggering; for me, the blues of the mise en scene are perfect for the coldness of the society that allows such treatment to occur. As to the writer’s second point, that is what gives the film its Kafkaesque quality: the trauma of the rape is made worse by the difficulty in getting recourse to justice. What happens to her is screamingly unjust and thus shows the absurdity of social institutions.

Unlike Soni, where the camera’s positioning sometimes distanced us from the drama, the sequence shots serve to ‘immerse’ us in the action. This immersion is emotional as the scene plays out in real time, the lack of editing signifies a lack of manipulation as we know the action we are seeing was actually played out by the actors. However, Ben Hania’s direction isn’t just ‘follow the action’ as she carefully frames, and reframes, the composition and the steadicam movement always flows in an aesthetically pleasing way.

The film was screened at Cannes and I look forward to seeing Ben Hania, and Al Ferjani’s, next films.

¡Viva! 25 #10: Pajaros de verano (Birds of Passage Colombia-Mexico-Denmark 2018)

Birds of Passage Cannes

The ritual dance that begins the tragedy of the Wayuu with Rapayet (José Acosta) and Zaida (Natalia Reyes)

This is a fascinating film which raises a number of the ‘global film’ questions that we like to explore on this blog. The film is directed by the team of Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra who will be familiar to UK audiences because of the wide success of their previous production, The Embrace of the Serpent (2015). The gossip seems to be that the couple have now split up and I wonder how significant it is that Cristina has a joint directorial credit on this film – whereas she was the producer on the previous film. Just as in 2016 when the previous film appeared in ¡Viva!, this was a preview screening and the film will get a UK release through Curzon on 17 May.

There are various ways in which this film could be described in conventional terms and the most popular seems to be as a ‘universal family gangster film’. There is certainly something in that description but it is a little glib to say the least. If I had to try to sum up the film in this way I’d suggest it is something like a cross between Gangs of Wasseypur and a film by Sembène Ousmane or another Senegalese or Malian director with all the rich mix of ideas that such a mash-up suggests. Ciro Guerra in the Press Notes (French via Google Translate) confirms a wish to make a genre film but still retain the exploration of the representation of indigenous peoples from the couples earlier films:

For me, it’s a film noir, a gangster movie. But it can also be both a Western, a Greek tragedy and a tale by Gabriel García Márquez.

Guerra also discusses the idea of ‘myths’ in story telling and sees popular cinema genres as a way to explore these. Later in the Notes Cristina Gallego suggests à propos of discussing the ‘great bonanza’ of the cannabis export to the US and the subsequent drugs wars in the 1970s:

It’s a metaphor for our country, a family tragedy that is also becoming a national tragedy. Speaking of the past, it allows us to better understand where we are today as a country.

The story covers the years 1969-79 and it is set in the peninsula of Guajira, the most northerly part of South America which sticks out into the Caribbean Sea. Wikipedia describes the region nicely:

The scenery of Guajira is very picturesque, with wide desert plains and green, foggy mountains.

The indigenous people of this desert/mountain region are the Wayuu. Under colonial rule, and after, the Wayuu were subject to missionary pressure to convert to Catholicism but in recent times they have been allowed to practise traditional rituals without interference. The Wayuu have always resisted centralised control over their affairs. The film narrative is set at a time when there might be priests around (much as in Sembène’s Ceddo (1977) but they don’t appear in the film. At times it is difficult to believe that this film is set in the 1970s – until we see the Land Rovers and Jeeps. The narrative begins with a meeting of a Wayuu clan in which a young woman, Zaida, who has been confined for a year is brought out to celebrate the moment she has become a woman. She performs a rapid dance with her younger brother and then he is replaced by a stranger, a grown man known as Rapayet. By taking a role in the dance Rapayet (who is also Wayuu) has suggested he is interested in marriage. But this requires a ritual proposal and Rapayet’s uncle Peregrino is an accepted negotiator. A bride price/dowry is agreed in the form of goats, cattle and necklaces. So far, so traditional. For us as the audience, the inciting incident is a chance observation by Rapayet and his business partner of a trio of Americans who we learn are associated with the ‘Peace Corps’ and who are distributing anti-Communist propaganda in the form of playing cards. They are also on the lookout for marijuana for which they can pay in US dollars. Immediately we know that tradition has been undermined by modernity, capitalism and American culture. Rapayet will buy the crops grown by his cousin in the mountains and the Wayuu clans will grow rich.

Peregrino and Rapayet. The straw hat that Rapayet wears is said to be iconic in Colombia

I won’t spoil the narrative any further. Instead I’ll just outline one or two of the other elements. The bride’s mother Úrsula turns out to be some form of spirit messenger who foresees the tragic events ahead (often via the appearance of certain birds – hence the title). She is also a formidable leader of her clan – to which Rapayet has now pledged himself. What follows is visually dominated by the stark contrast between the semi-desert lands where Úrsula’s clan are settled and the lush tropical hillsides where Aníbal, Rapayet’s cousin, has his house and fields. The second important element of the narrative is the deadly way in which the greed of criminal capitalist enterprise will join with/poison the traditional relationships between clans. This means that once a dispute begins it is almost impossible to end it peaceably. The narrative resolution which I won’t describe does return us to the use of traditional storytelling, although sadly it is too late to compensate for all the damage that has been done.

In all the carnage of the second half of the film, the Colombian police appear fleetingly and only to take their cut of the drugs business. Now, several days after the screening, I’ve only just realised that the time period in the second half of the 1970s was a violent time in much of South America and the period of the first two organised crime groups involved in the Colombian drugs business (although by this time it was cocaine rather than marijuana that was being exported to North America). The internal wars in Colombia (which involved both the drugs barons and leftist guerrillas) don’t appear in the narrative which seems to be almost timeless and also completely cut off from the rest of the region. It’s true that the peninsula is the most isolated part of Colombia, but it still feels odd.

Birds of Passage

Ursula (Carmiña Martínez) is a formidable leader of her clan.

The film’s casting does appear to have posed some problems for the filmmakers. I assumed that the largest proportion of the Colombian population was, as in many Latin American countries, mestizo – the result of inter-marriage between European colonists/settlers/migrants and indigenous peoples. This appears to be the case but, as in Mexico, there are different ways of estimating and defining the proportion of mestizos and that of ‘Europeans’. In most of Colombia, the indigenous populations are relatively small except in the peninsula and some border regions of the south. African-Colombians tend to be concentrated in the Caribbean coastal regions. While some of the actors did appear to be indigenous and possibly Wayuu, others were more European in appearance. The Wayuu use the word alijuna which I understand to simply mean ‘outsiders’ or ‘strangers’ – i.e. ‘not Wayuu’. It was this that I found a little confusing and I wasn’t sure if ‘marrying out’ meant being cast out of the community. My concern is that the principal characters (who are all  professional actors) appear more ‘European’ than indigenous (though the Press Notes reveal that both Carmiña Martínez and Jose Acosta have Wayuu roots in the family histories). The only African-Colombian character of note, Rapayet’s business partner Moisés, is a loud and aggressive character and I assume that his treatment by the Wayuu is more to do with his personal characteristics than any racial prejudice. The film doesn’t really clarify any doubts about this.

The fantasy/dream images and premonitions of death

I’m left wondering what I made of the film. Part of me is worried that the genre conventions of a clan war dominate the film too much and don’t allow enough of the unique geography and sociology/ethnography of the region to be fully appreciated (and it must have been a very difficult production to shoot). I fear the ‘City of God‘ syndrome and the over-promotion of the gangster genre so that the film becomes a cult hit based on its genre qualities. On the other hand perhaps there is enough suggestion about traditions and rituals of the Wayuu and the ‘spirituality’ of Úrsula and her family to keep us interested in the cultural questions. The filmmakers themselves have positive reasons for making the film this way and perhaps they are reaching a local audience? It’s what happens in markets like the UK that worries me. Curzon as a distributor used to be quite good with films like this, making available press materials. This time there is relatively little I can find (but perhaps more will appear before the actual release?). At the moment, the language of the film is given as ‘Spanish’ – but much of the dialogue is actually in the local Wayuu language.

I found watching the film was a very intense experience with the dramatic landscapes photographed by David Gallego. Gallego photographed The Embrace of the Serpent for the same filmmakers, but he was also responsible for the photography on I Am Not a Witch (2017) which would have taken him to Zambia, so perhaps my suggestion of an African feel about some images is not too outlandish? I enjoyed the music by Leo Heiblum and the sound design by Carlos García. Both are very strong in eliciting an emotional response and the film worked very well in the big screen in HOME’s Cinema 1. When it comes out, find the biggest screen you can.

¡Viva! 25 #9: Alinas (Argentina 2017)

Alanis (Sofía Gala) with her son Danton

Alanis is an unusual study of a sex worker, presented mainly as a kind of social realist ‘prostitution procedural’. We experience what happens to Alanis, a 25 year-old in Buenos Aires with Dante her 18 month old infant still fed at his mother’s breast. Alanis works out of an apartment she shares with Gisela, an older woman who acts as a madam and a carer for the boy. The exact working relationship between the two women hasn’t yet been made clear when local agents, police and a social worker arrive and effectively eject Alanis and Dante from the apartment and arrest Gisela. We then follow what happens to Alanis and Dante.

Argentinian law seems to prosecute brothel-keeping but tolerates individual acts of selling sex. The procedures explored in the film are mainly concerned withthe raid, some of the practices of street prostitution and something of the arrangements in a brothel. Alanis is devoted to her son and her work is to some extent humanised by Dante’s care arrangements. The film features two contrasting scenes with clients, the second of which does move away from social realism to an expressionist representation of the sheer hard work of trying to satisfy a client. This scene is shot in from specific angles in a hotel bedroom in such a way that doesn’t feel exploitative and certainly not erotic, but it is certainly wearing – for the viewer and for Alanis herself. In other scenes social realism conventions are also undermined by camerawork which often frames action in uncomfortable ways –with Alanis seen through doorways or in mirrors. There is also frequent use of shallow focus in which Alanis moves very close to the camera with backgrounds increasingly blurred. Again this seems to consciously undermine the fetishisation of female bodies on screen. We get to see Alanis in big close-ups often with Dante at her breast. Those strange people who are offended by the sight of breast-feeding might find this very shocking.

A typical framing of Alanis as she tries to work out what to do. Note the divided frame and the soft focus background, both emphasising the isolation of Alanis.

There isn’t much in the way of narrative drive in the film, only the details of how Alanis will find somewhere to stay and ways to find the money to keep herself and Dante and there isn’t a conventional narrative resolution. The film must be carried by Sofía Gala as Alanis. In a sense I was relieved to discover after the screening that Dante is played by Ms Gala’s own son. As one reviewer noted, the emotional attachment is there on the screen and there is the possibility that later in life mother and son will look back with affection on their portrayal. The film is written and directed by Anahí Berneri. This is her fifth film and she has been winning prizes at international festivals since 2005. I’m surprised that I haven’t come across her before. Alanis won her the best director prize at San Sebastian International Festival and at Havana in 2017. Sofía Gala also won acting prizes for the film.

Brothels like this one in the film are illegal in Argentina

The links to social realism in the film come through the everyday presentation of the streets of Buenos Aires, the presentation of the characters Alanis meets and the few details we glean from her accounts of her background as a girl from a provincial town. Alanis is not her real name and there is a nice joke when someone asks if she was named after that pop star ‘Morrissey’. If the film overall isn’t social realist it is definitely ‘humanist’ in its depiction of a world and the people in it. As another reviewer points out, what is noticeable is that Alanis never feels sorry for herself and never complains. She simply gets on with the task of looking after Dante and herself. She isn’t ashamed of what she does. We get the impression that she sees sex work simply as work.

The director Anahí Berneri with Sofía Gala – and an unknown crew member?

I’m not sure I ‘enjoyed’ Alanis but I was never bored (it’s a short film at 82 minutes). I was very impressed by the central performance and by the writing and direction. I’m not sure my feelings about prostitution have been changed one way or the other. This isn’t a ‘social message’ film but, as in all good humanist films, I feel grateful to have got to know a character like Alanis. I’ll certainly look out for more films by Anahí Berneri  and anything featuring Sofía Gala. The trailer below doesn’t have English subs but gives an idea of the style of the film.

¡Viva! 25 #6: Las niñas bien (The Good Girls, Mexico 2018)

This film has a similar title to the classic Claude Chabrol film from 1960 (Les bonnes femmes, France-Italy) which has by chance drawn a few visitors to this blog recently. Both films have question marks about how to translate their titles into English. It’s the ‘good’ part that’s the problem. What exactly does it mean? Chabrol’s film about four working-class shopgirls received criticism at the time but has since become recognised as one of his best films. Las niñas bien is about a group of upper middle-class women in Mexico City in 1982. The film was written and directed by Alejandra Márquez Abella and most of the ‘creatives’ on the crew were also women. This was noted on the film’s first big festival appearance at Toronto in 2018 where reviewers praised the film and Márquez Abella was selected by Variety as one of its ’10 Directors to Watch’ in 2019. The film has since gone on to win prizes at festivals and was released in March in Mexico. However, I wonder how it might now be viewed by those audiences who so enjoyed Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (2018) which deals with same world at an earlier time of crisis in 1972?

The Good Girls with their drivers

Las niñas bien is adapted from a book of essays written in the early 1980s by Maria Guadalupe Loaeza, one of a group of ‘Good Girls’, who exposed how these women spent their time and their money and how they treated each other and the others (servants, receptionists, shop staff etc. as well as the nouveau riche) who they met. In the interview below, Alejandra Márquez Abella explains how she decided to use this source material which she thinks is still relevant thirty years later as the same social class divisions remain and Mexico has suffered recurring cycles of economic ‘boom and bust’. She recognises that the original was a satire but argues that she hasn’t created a satirical film but rather a form of detailed character study looking at how these women behave and how surface appearances relate to what might be happening ‘underneath’. She feels that satire doesn’t really work in exploring this kind of world any more – there have been so many such satirical films about social class in Latin America.

Writer-director Alejandra Márquez Abella (centre with the microphone)

I have to say that as I watched the film I was very uncomfortable. Part of me was admiring the direction, the acting, the cinematography and the production design – this is a very well-made film. But the other half was raging against these wealthy dilettantes who contribute nothing to society and look down their carefully made-up noses at the rest of Mexico and indeed the country itself. After the screening I spent a long time thinking about the film and I haven’t quite resolved the conflict in my feelings about it.

 Ilse Salas as SofÍa

SofÍa in situ as the queen of her domain

The plot of the film follows roughly a year, I think, in the life of the central character SofÍa played by Ilse Salas. This is a stunning performance and I didn’t recognise the same actor who was also very good in Güeros (Mexico 2014) in a very different role. SofÍa is a woman from, presumably, a ‘good family’ who has been advised to marry Fernando because he too is from the right kind of family. When the narrative begins SofÍ is hosting a lavish party for her birthday. Everything is ‘just right’ except that she hasn’t achieved her fantasy result in which Julio Iglesias appears as a guest (this and the references to the Spanish department store El Corte Inglés is a sign of deference to the ex-colonial power in Mexico). The next day however Fernando learns that his uncle is pulling out of the business he had started as a ‘migrant’ (from Spain?) with Fernando’s father. There is a crisis coming with the falling value of the peso and anyone who doesn’t hold dollars is in trouble. From this point Fernando is in deep trouble – and so is SofÍ. Having packed her children off to summer camp with instructions not to mix with ‘Mexicans’ (!), SofÍ seems only marginally affected by the financial crisis when her credit cards are refused and her cheques bounce.

An important parallel plotline is the appearance of Ana Paula (Paulina Gaitan) as a young woman from the country with ‘uncouth’ manners who marries a successful financier (?) and aspires to join the ‘Good Girls’. She takes SofÍ as a role model and aspires to be like her, wanting to know how to speak, what clothes to wear, how to behave. SofÍ behaves very badly towards her but gradually the tables are turned as Ana Paula becomes the dominant figure in the social life of the group.

Daniela Ludlow cinematographer

A great deal of time is spent on clothes, make-up and interior decoration. Some commentators argue that this is unusual and shows the care and attention of a female crew. DoP Dariela Ludlow must take some of the credit for her presentation of the women alongside costume designer Annai Ramos. The film is set in the early 1980s which, from my perspective was one of the worst periods for fashion and I was reminded of Margaret Thatcher – not a pleasant memory. At the end of the film, SofÍ tears out her shoulder pads and I thought this might mark a change for the good, but the actual resolution of the narrative suggests ‘business as usual’. Earlier I mentioned a comparison with Roma. There is one shared moment between the two films when a drunken husband crashes his car into a post, but otherwise the two films are very different. Roma offers us several perspectives on Mexican society and in particular promotes the maid and the children to central roles and effectively narrators of the film. The ‘Good Girls’ marginalise both their servants and their children.

It doesn’t look at the moment as if this film will make it into UK distribution. I wish it would because I think it could generate discussion about what a film by women and arguably ‘for women’ might be in the current climate. I’m not sure whether I’m in tune with what Alejandra Márquez Abella attempts to do here, but I’m definitely interested in what she might do next. The film has been taken by Netflix so you may be able to find it there. The interview below is well worth exploring.

Capernaum (Capharnaüm, Lebanon-France-US 2018)

2018 saw the release of six films of the highest quality which took many of the top prizes around the world at festivals and national awards. Cold War was followed into UK distribution by Shoplifters and then Roma. Burning appeared in early 2019 and now we have Capernaum. Happy as Lazzaro appears next month. What a year 2018 was! And there are others to come which I haven’t seen yet. We might struggle to find such quality across this year’s output.

Capernaum (the title translates as ‘chaos) is one of the most controversial of the six films. While many audiences and critics have raved about the film, there are some who have accused Lebanese writer-director-actor Nadine Labaki and her musician-producer partner Khaled Mouzanar of various kinds of offences. The most widely expressed of these centres on the concept of ‘poverty porn’, something previously visited upon Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire (UK-US-India 2009). I struggle to understand exactly what ‘poverty porn’ might be but first here’s a brief outline of Capernaum and its production.

The power of the film lies in the extraordinary performance by Zain Al Rafeea

Lebanon is a country which has suffered more than most because of its own internal divisions, partly derived from its colonial past, and its proximity to the wholescale disruption of people’s lives in Palestine and Syria and the subsequent migrations of refugees to Lebanon. At the same time, Beirut has maintained its position as a major economic and cultural centre for the entire region. Nadine Labaki has attempted to bring together several social issues as the basis for her story about Zain, a 12 year-old Lebanese boy who leaves his family and for a brief period lives with a migrant worker and her infant child. The story engages with the ‘street culture’ of Beirut, the refugee camps, the difficulty of achieving resident status and the ways in which so many people can easily become ‘invisible’ because of their lack of official recognition. Thus the ‘chaos’ of life in Beirut. Labaki’s strategy is to create a narrative which at one level appears to explore this world using the techniques of neo-realism, but also with some of the more expressionist devices of contemporary cinema such as the drone shots which show the extent of of cheap housing and shacks. The narrative structure uses a series of flashbacks from a central court case in which the young boy sues his parents for bringing him into this world of chaos.

Yordanos Shiferaw as Rahil

Nadine Labaki’s previous films as director are Caramel (2007) and Where Do We Go Now? (2011). The first is a form of realist melodrama centring on the lives of women from different backgrounds who meet at a local beauty shop. The second is an unusual form of musical comedy which explores questions about civil war via the idea of women in an isolated village attempting to defuse hostilities by manipulating the sexual desires of the men. Capernaum is in some way an amalgam of the styles of the first two films, bringing together a realist style with the narrative device of a courtroom in which the trial becomes an indictment of a whole structure of government policies in Beirut. This is something used in a slightly different way in a film like Bamako (Mali-France 2006). Nadine Labaki also starred in her first two films as a director (she also works as an actor in both French and Lebanese cinema) but in Capernaum she plays the role of the Zain’s counsel in court, an important, but secondary role. Although the trial seems an unlikely event, Labaki consulted retired judges to ensure that the scenes have some credibility. Many of the actors in the film are non-professionals, often with ‘real-life’ experience of the kinds of roles they play.

Only a vocal minority of commentators are against this film which scores a very high 8.4 on IMDb. But it is worth looking at the negative reviews to try to understand the issues a little more clearly. The Slumdog Millionaire comparison is interesting because some of the critics refer to Capernaum as ‘Oscar bait’ and accuse it of ‘manipulation’. (The film was distributed in the US by Sony Classics in the US, giving it a higher profile than Labaki’s earlier films.) At the same time there are charges from some critics that the film is ‘without cinematic merit’ while for others its use of hand-held camera and drone shots (and its flashback structure) are cinematic devices which ‘get in the way’ of presenting the real conditions faced by the thousands living in cheap housing or on the streets in Beirut. The charge is that Labaki is a relatively wealthy woman exploiting her non-professional actors in order to make American audiences cry – and presumably to make themselves feel better. One commentator calls Labaki a ‘Western woman’. But not everybody who is educated, talented and speaks French and/or English is ‘Western’. It seems that Nadine Labaki had to help some of her non-professional actors in ‘real life’ because of their precarious positions. ‘Zain’ is played by Zain Al Rafeea, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon and ‘Rahil’, the woman he meets and befriends is played by Yordanos Shiferaw, an Eritrean refugee in Ethiopia who became an illegal migrant worker in Lebanon. Both Zain and Yordanos were helped in different ways. The parents of the little girl who plays Rahil’s son were also arrested during the shoot and the crew had to intervene. Even so the mother and child were deported back to Kenya and the father to Nigeria. This information is taken from the film’s Press Pack.

Zain’s lawyer in the court case is played by Nadine Labaki herself

But what about ‘poverty porn’? Describing something as ‘porn’ suggests that it is produced in order to ‘arouse’ audiences/readers, to stimulate an excessive interest in something. In the case of ‘gastro-porn’ or ‘gardening porn’ it’s used as a criticism of middle class readers who revel in the expensive beauty of these objects of consumption. But how does this work with images of poverty? Their status as pornographic images can derive only from the perceived exploitation of the actors or the behaviour of those who watch/read the imagery. However, unlike haute cuisine or beautiful gardens, images of poverty are also concerned with exposing and circulating ways of living/surviving that are often excluded from cinema screens. There is always a case for showing not excluding. The argument must be about how they are shown, but also about the need to show them in such a way to attract audiences who might not otherwise be aware of the issues.

If I think about my own reaction to the film, I don’t think I was ‘shocked’ or that I felt ‘manipulated’ by the film. Many scenes are certainly difficult to watch and I was emotionally engaged but I’ve seen similar films before. Once or twice I was struck by similarities with Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988) and, more oddly, I thought about Battle of Algiers (Algeria-France 1966) – I think it was the prison scenes. I was very impressed by the performances of the non-professionals. Zain in particular is a very distinctive young boy, small for his age but seemingly fearless. The fact that he is a very attractive and appealing child has perhaps fuelled some of the negative reviews. The German-Lebanese cinematographer Christopher Aoun is still in the early stages of his career but I thought his work was very effective. The music by Khaled Mouzanar worked for me and he and Nadine Labaki have produced a film with a universal story that is stunningly presented in the context of Beirut.

I don’t know Nadine Labaki personally and I can’t judge whether she has exploited her non-professional cast. All I can do is watch the film and read what she has said about its production. Her most vocal critics might have some local knowledge about life in Beirut but from my perspective this is a powerful film that deserves its large audience. The claims that it has no ‘cinematic merit’ just seem silly. In the wider context I hope that Capernaum makes audiences more aware of the refugee crisis in Lebanon and exerts pressure for changes in international policies affecting the region. It would be good if attention switched to a little further down the coast and focused on the major causes of the refugee crises in Lebanon over the past 70 years – the forced flight of Palestinians from their homelands and the proxy war that has just been fought in Syria. I’m also looking forward to whatever Nadine Labaki produces next.

Here’s the Canadian trailer:

GFF19 #16: For a Happy Life (Pour vivre heureux, Belgium-Luxembourg 2018)

Amel (Sofia Lesaffre) and Mashir (Christoper Zeerak)

This was the fourth Francophone film I saw in Glasgow that was directed by a woman and explored the possibilities of the family melodrama. Although in many ways a conventional narrative, there were several interesting facets of its setting and the screening was followed by a lively Q&A. The film is credited to Salima Glamine and Dimitri Linder as co-writers and directors of their first feature and in the Q&A Salima spoke first while Dimitri had one baby in his arms and another toddler having fun running around. The Q&A chair and the interpreter managed very well. Salima described herself as Algerian-French and the central character of the film is 17 year-old Amel played by Sofia Lesaffre as the daughter of a single-parent Algerian taxi driver (Pascal Elbe). I don’t remember any reference to Amel’s mother. Amel’s high school friends include a tearaway white girl Chloë (Salomé Dewaels)and Sima (Arsha Iqbal), a Pakistani girl from a traditional family. At the family wedding feast for Sima’s oldest brother we get the first inkling that Amel knows Mashir (Christopher Zeerak), Sima’s other brother who is 22.

The cousins Sima (Arsha Iqbal) and Noor (Atiya Rashid) in school

Amel and Mashir have a secret relationship and they plan to find a way to escape family scrutiny by each separately moving to London. Amel tries to get a post as an au pair and Mashir is a computer engineer with prospects. All appears to be going well until the arrival of Mashir’s cousin, Noor (Atiya Rashid) who has been living in Berlin. She too joins the same high school class as Amel who tries to make her welcome. Noor believes that she will be able to marry a young man in Berlin, but now her parents are in Brussels and in contact with Mashir’s family there are all kinds of dangers as the inevitable meeting of parents prompts thoughts about a marriage between cousins.

‘For a Happy Life’ is a title that describes the dilemma for all concerned – how to act in such a way that everyone is happy. That’s probably not always possible, but some actions might be more damaging than others. Amel is clearly the character out on a limb. Fortunately Sofia Lesaffre gives a spirited performance in this lead role and her energy drives the film through its 85 minutes, ensuring a full-blown family melodrama. It’s no surprise that she strides around in her bright red jacket. I found the film intriguing and enjoyable, but I had lots of questions about the Pakistani community in Brussels, wondering how life for second generation teenagers might compare to that of young South Asians in Bradford.

Amel’s father Karim (Pascal Elbe) is a more ‘modern’ single parent and he is looking for a new female companion

Salima Glamine suggested that they simply chose the Pakistani community as a traditional community that might be threatened by interaction with a young woman like Amel. She explained that when she discovered there weren’t that many actors within the Belgian (or Parisian) Pakistani communities she used social media to find non-professionals who were prepared to join the cast. Only Javed Khan who plays Noor’s father was a professional actor (he has appeared in a number of Indian and British films. Since I don’t speak or understand French or Urdu well enough to detect accents I have no idea how the various family members in the film sound. The film seems to have gone down well with Belgian audiences and critics and it won both the audience and critics’ prizes at the Namur Francophone Film Festival. Nobody at the Glasgow screening mentioned the accents so I’m none the wiser on that score.

The film was presented in CinemaScope and I was impressed with its handling of a young romance and of the importance of social media in the lives of the young women in particular. There are shocks in the film and one is when a mobile phone is thrown out of a speeding car window. Needless to say the phone’s owner is soon seen ‘unboxing’ a new iPhone. In some ways, social media and traditional families don’t mix –things can happen too quickly and secrets can become known everywhere in a matter of seconds. It’s a far cry from the novels of the 19th century with hand-written letters and the reading of wills which seemed so important in generating melodrama presentations in theatre and early cinema adaptations. This is a first feature but Salima is an experienced actor and Dimitri has been a production manager on several high-profile Belgian films and I don’t think the film feels like a début directing effort.

Salima and Dimitri had worked before with youth groups in Paris and Brussels and we learned that so far it has been shown to around 5,000 teen agers in Belgium. It was important that the film’s ending has the suggestion of a future for the characters so many young audiences were asking for a sequel. One questioner, from Brussels, said he knew the Anderlecht area of the city very well but he wasn’t aware of the problems about arranged marriages which he ‘d noted were much more likely to be discussed in the British media. Salima’s response, that the community in Brussels is ‘first generation’ and more concerned about children ‘marrying out’ of the community, seems to make sense. Someone else asked if the actors raised any questions about being represented as the Pakistanis we saw in the film. Salima suggested that they did discuss the characters with the actors  who suggested minor changes in the details but they were quite happy with the ‘core’ events of the story.

This is the kind of film we should see from Belgium in cinemas or on TV. My impression is that there are many interesting films about migration and the experiences of mixed communities coming from a range of European countries and we should be engaged with these issues in the UK. This is another reason why Brexit seems such a bad idea.

Here is a trailer in French (with French subs for the Urdu)