Category: Films by women

Glasgow FF15 #9: Still the Water (Futatsume no mado, Japan-France 2014)

Kyoto swimming in her school uniform

Kyoko swimming in her school uniform

This was the film I most wanted to see in Glasgow, simply because writer-director Naomi Kawase is one of the most frequent Cannes prize contenders never to have had a film released in the UK. No doubt some of her earlier films have been at festivals here, but if so I’ve missed them. Female Japanese auteurs are not easy to find so I’ve been on the lookout for a Kawase film for some time. Inevitably, the fact that this film is a French co-production will help its sales. France and other Francophone territories in Europe have been her only outlets so far but the catalogue suggests that Still the Water will be released by Soda Pictures in the UK.

Without any previous experience of the director’s films I’m struggling to find a way in to discuss the film and to respond to some of the reviews from Cannes where the film was in competition for the Palme d’Or (Kawase has previously won the Camera d’Or and the Jury Prize and in 2013 she was on the main jury panel). What, for instance, to make of Derek Elley’s Film Business Asia Review which is headed “More empty, pretentious ramblings from self-styled auteur Kawase Naomi” and scored as 2/10? By contrast, Indiewire thought the film had a chance of winning the Palme d’Or. I’ll try to work somewhere between these two.

Still the Water is an intriguing title (and as Elley points out, the Japanese title means something quite different which doesn’t match the plot either). The story is set on the island of Amami Ōshima, part of the archipelago that stretches between Kyushu, the southernmost of the four main Japanese islands, and Okinawa. Apparently Kawase, who grew up in the Nara region of Honshu, has discovered that her ancestors came from the Amami Islands. Apart from the beauty of the islands, two other elements of local Amami culture are significant. One is the presence of female Shinto priests or noro and the other is the importance of local folk/community song traditions. The waters are often not still because the region is subject to typhoons.

Naomi Kawase directs  (from left) Yoshinaga Jun (Kyoto), Murakami Nijirô (Kaito) and Tokita Fujio (Kyoto's grandfather?)

Naomi Kawase directs (from left) Yoshinaga Jun (Kyoto), Murakami Nijirô (Kaito) and Tokita Fujio (old fisherman)

The narrative begins with the body of a tattooed man being found in the sea and a subsequent ban on sea bathing – ignored by Kyoko, the strong and very beautiful 16 year-old daughter of a family that owns a beach restaurant. The body had been found by Kyoko’s classmate Kaito and the young couple are in a relationship that hasn’t yet fully formed. While her father cooks the food and runs the restaurant, her mother Isa is seriously ill in hospital and will eventually come home to die. Isa is presumably a noro – though the subtitles call her a shaman. Kaito lives with his mother, a waitress in a local restaurant. She is separated from the boy’s father, a tattooist in Tokyo who Kaito visits one weekend. His mother is often out with new partners and this has an impact on Kaito. The narrative includes the mystery of the body in the sea as well as the romance between Kyoko and Kaito, but there isn’t really much plot. The main question seems to be how the different issues facing the couple’s parents will have an impact on their children. More important, perhaps, is the discourse about nature and spirituality, ecology and human psychology. One obvious point is about the juxtaposition of death – scenes of a goat being slaughtered by the old fisherman are presented in close-up detail and witnessed by Kyoto – and the blossoming of romance and sexual joy.

Kyoko and Kaito beneath the ancient banyan tree in the mangrove forest.

Kyoko and Kaito beneath the ancient banyan tree in the mangrove forest.

Those who don’t like the film seem to be most offended by the lack of narrative drive and what they see as Kawase’s pretentiousness. This view ignores the sheer beauty of the film and the sensitivity of the performances. The other stumbling block may be the ‘otherness’ of Japanese culture. It often seems to me that the importance of the sea in Japan’s ‘island culture’ isn’t properly recognised in the West – nor is the Shintoist belief in the spirits which inhabit specific locations. Perhaps the title refers to the oncoming typhoon and the possibility that the love between Kyoko (who is expected to inherit her mother’s powers?) and Kaito will ensure that ‘still water’ will be restored. Personally, I picked up echoes of Miyazaki’s Ponyo on the Cliff By the Sea (2008) – simply in terms of the spirits of the sea, the ecological questions and the triumphant young female figure. The look of the film, however, comes from a different kind of ‘magic image’ in the work of veteran cinematographer Yamazaki Yutaka, best known in recent years for his work with Kore-eda Hirokazu on his films about families and children. Still the Water benefits from his photography of the sea and landscapes as well as the characters. Equally important is the music, including the traditional songs sung in Isa’s last few hours on the beach. I like films in which the characters sing.

Now I’ve thought it through, I’m not sure that the film is a masterpiece but I certainly enjoyed it and I look forward to seeing it again. I’m also going to have to add this film to my list of movies with great cycling scenes. Here is the French trailer with English subs giving a good idea of the emotional intensity of the film.

Selma (US 2014)

selma-poster

This film has already generated much interest and nominations for a number of prestigious awards. However, a major Oscar was not one of the Awards that it actually won. The Hollywood Academy is not noted for its critical acumen, but this year’s major awards really do ‘take the biscuit’. Do people really think that Birdman is a better film, has a better director and has better cinematography? Of the major award nominees Selma is the best film that I have seen, apart from Ida in the Best Foreign Language Category. It may sound banal but maybe the members of the Academy felt that honouring 12 Years a Slave last year sufficed. Perhaps more tellingly, the only Oscar awarded to Selma was for Best Song ‘Glory’. It would seem that the US discourse around “race”, ethnicity and colour still suffers stereotypes such as Afro-Americans only make good entertainers and sports people!

Revisiting on film the Civil Rights movement in the USA of the 1950s and 1960s is like revisiting the European holocaust or some of the brutal events of colonial and neo-colonial history – always something of a shock. The sheer violence and viciousness of the system of oppression and apartheid turns out to be even more extreme than one thought. Here the story is the organising of a march by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in order to pressurise President Johnson to pass a Voting Rights Act. One aspect of the film is a portrait of both the public and private figure of Dr. Martin Luther King. But it is also a portrait of an important group of black leaders in the Civil Rights Movement: of some key individuals involved in that struggle: and of other key political figures involved in these events which occurred in 1965. The film presents and dramatises the conflicts between King’s public and private life: the tensions and conflicts in the black civil rights movement: and the conflicts within the US political establishment between leaders seen as liberal or reactionary.

The film has a striking opening. Dr. King (David Oyelowo) stands in front of a mirror rehearsing a speech: his wife Coretta (Carmen Elogo) helps him adjust his tie/Ascot: Dr King receives the Nobel Peace Prize. As he delivers his speech the film cuts to a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. A group of children playfully descend a staircase and a violent explosion, killing four young black girls, shatters the calm. The last sequence is shot using noticeable cinematic techniques, which the film then tends to eschew later on. It provides a shocking moment, which of course, was the frequent experience of black people in the South at that time.

Martin and Coretta

Martin and Coretta

The film continues with scenes from private life of Martin and Coretta. We see the preparations by black leaders for the march, including some dissension and arguments. Cameos of ordinary black characters fill out the actual experience of the day to day for the black population. And there are high level meetings between President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and Dr. King and his colleagues. One effective technique is the use of onscreen Teletype titles, which record the spying by the FBI on Dr. King and his colleagues. We also get a brief glimpse of Edgar J. Hoover.

The early parts of the film tend to the low key, with limited musical accompaniment. Church meetings, where Dr. King’s charisma electrifies and galvanises the ordinary black population, punctuate the plot.

When the film reaches the actual march the drama and the onscreen violence increase dramatically. And the musical accompaniment moves up several notches. This is the mode of the melodrama of protest, and the film very effectively uses those conventions to draw the audience and their sympathies to the courageous black marchers. Somewhat unusually in this genre, though the film ends with the torch of the struggle for Civil Rights carried forward, it does also close with an identifiable victory, the passage of the historic Voting Rights Acts. On screen titles chart the course of the central characters: the continuation of white-on-black violence: but also the effect of the right to vote for black citizens.

Protesting the right to vote

Protesting the right to vote

Whilst in this sense the film is agitational it also addresses more complex matters. So the speeches and discussions by the black leaders gradually impart to the audience the actual mechanics of the racist denial of voting rights. The politics and political manoeuvring are also apparent: and the film delineates the actuality of Non-violent protest in an extremely effective manner. The meetings with Johnson demonstrate how this ‘liberal’ politician was actually driven [like F.D.R.] by popular and organised pressure to effect the historic legislation of his Presidency. And the range of attitudes and prejudices within the political establishment are well aired. What the film does not essay, perhaps understandably given its intent, is an attempt to understand the basis of white prejudice in the way that it explores black resistance.

If the Academy’s Best Picture Award is for a film that has the highest quality in every department, [and is invariably an English language film], then I cannot think of a better candidate than Selma. Indeed, it is worthy of an Oscar in several other categories. It is beautifully produced, has an intelligent but highly dramatic approach to its subject, and this itself is an important topic and not just in the USA. I have seen the film twice now, on both occasions there were good-sized audiences who were clearly impressed by the film – you can tell by how many and for how long the audience sit through the final credit sequence.

The film is obviously well scripted, by British Paul Webb. However, in an interview in Sight & Sound (March 2015), the director Ava DuVernay explained how she had rewritten and added to the script. This was cleanly a substantial addition though she does not seem to have an onscreen credit. Judging by her comments she added considerably to both the intelligent and dramatic treatment of the subject. And whilst the film is serious it has its lighter moments. At one point Mahalia Jackson renders a spiritual down the telephone to hearten Dr. King. And when activists preparing for the final march hear that some Hollywood black stars are coming to join them they break into a chorus of De.e.o.o.o.o. The film is also conscious on the issue of gender – at mealtimes and in other ways. When Malcom X appears to the chagrin of the black male leaders, Coretta King is deputised to meet and talk with him.

In addition to this DuVernay has ably marshalled a sizeable production team, all of whom should be commended for their inputs. The acting in the film has been duly praised and honoured. David Oyelowo has been singled out deservedly. Ironically along with two other fine performers, Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth, we have a key ‘American film’ where major characters are performed by British actors. Carmen Elogo is excellent and so are the many performers working as colleagues of King. And the cameos are finely drawn with Ofrah Winfrey offering one as activist Annie Lee Cooper. White characters do tend to the stereotypical, but that too is in line with the intent of the film.

The cinematography by Bradford Young is excellent. At times mid-shots and close-ups takes us into the personal drama. But longer shots and dramatic overhead shots accompany the action sequences. What struck me especially on the second viewing is the use of lighting. In an early speech Dr. King tells the congregation that they must stand up ‘in the daylight’. This becomes a theme in the film, as the lighting develops a pattern of light and shadow, reaching its culmination at the final rally in Montgomery. Just to highlight one scene. At a moment of doubt in the campaign King has a conversation with a young activist, John Lewis (Stephan James), in a car: whilst they are partly in darkness, as the conversation develops the light falls increasingly on King’s face.

The film was mainly shot on location. There is a very effective recreation of the period both in settings and costumes. And there are nice touches that set off the subject. There is King and Johnston arguing beneath a portrait of George Washington. Then we see a Southern style meal eagerly despatched by the black leadership, waited on by a female black activist. Right at the end we see Johnson, with the Stars and Stripes on either side, sitting regally in the Oval office.

And the film has a very effective and well-balanced soundtrack. Whilst the voices and accents seemed to be authentic the dialogue was mainly easy to follow. There is a judicious use of noise, which is amplified for the action sequences. And the music is minimal at times and then reaches effective crescendos at times of action.

Marching towards a victory

Marching towards a victory

The end of the film uses archive footage of the actual march intercut with the film’s recreation. Both are in the 2.39:1 anamorphic ratio – this is not a technique with which I am happy but it seems to work well here. I did have other concerns. It seems that the production could not use King’s actual speeches as they are already copyrighted: though those in the film seemed perfectly in keeping with the King I remember from television and film. The speeches have been copyrighted to Steven Spielberg, who also planned a film on Martin Luther King. I assume that this production requested their use – I would have thought Spielberg could have been satisfied with offering an effective portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Finally the film was shot on 35mm but has been digitally re-mastered for cinema exhibition [and for other formats]. The re-mastering has been done at 2K. I do not think the 2K standard does justice to good quality 35mm. The longer the shot, the greater likelihood of a lack of definition. And given the film’s play with light and shadow the dynamic contrast of 35mm or 4K digital would have served this better. When filmmakers are using 4K for digital film and exhibitors proudly advertise 4K projectors this seems an unacceptably stingy practice by producers and distributors.

Still if you see one Oscar-winning film this year, make it Selma – you will be absorbed, shocked, moved and entertained.

Glasgow FF15 #1: Stray Dog (US 2014)

Ronnie Hall with the latest addition to his family.

Ronnie Hall with the latest addition to his family.

Debra Granik didn’t perhaps get the praise she deserved for Winter’s Bone, one of the best (and most genuine) of recent American ‘independents’. I was keen to see her first documentary feature.

Ronnie ‘Stray Dog’ Hall is a Vietnam veteran who forty years later seems to have come to terms with his experiences and found a way to live a fulfilling life in rural Missouri where he’s the effective leader (and landlord) of a community based in a trailer park. Ronnie’s life revolves around family and friends and, most importantly, the various Veterans’ Associations and memorial events – which with ongoing service in Afghanistan are increasing all the time. Ronnie is also a biker and his trip to Washington DC with his local chapter is an important early narrative strand in the documentary – but it doesn’t dominate the film as much as the publicity suggests.

This is a classic (and therefore conventional) observational documentary. Granik and her crew are invisible and Ronnie as a strong character leads us through his story without much need of intertitles and no commentary as such. We simply follow him around and occasionally glimpse his friends and relatives without him. There is no discernible ‘political’ or ‘social’ message in the film, but the documentary performs a political role here simply by what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t seek out the glib signifiers of a typical view of the American heartland and it doesn’t attempt to select or emphasise specific aspects of Ronnie’s life to make a ‘statement’. Ronnie is clearly a nice guy who is loved and respected. He wears the US flag with pride but he has no time for politicians. He supports the Veterans’ causes and he has accepted counselling. He knows he’ll never come to terms with what happened in Vietnam. He’s been married twice to first a Korean and then to a Mexican and he welcomes his second wife’s 19 year-old sons to America just as he cares about his own granddaughter’s future.

I liked Ronnie and I like the documentary. The music, as in Winter’s Bone, is very good and Ronnie likes his dogs. I hope this gets a UK release. It’s the best kind of ‘feelgood’ film.

Water Lilies (Naissance des pieuvres, France 2007)

The three leads (from left)  and director Céline Sciamma at Cannes

The three leads (from left, Pauline Acquart, Adèle Haenel and Louise Blachère) and director Céline Sciamma at Cannes

The first of Céline Sciamma’s trilogy about teenage girls is in some ways the most hard-hitting, primarily because it is the least contextualised in terms of family and setting. All three films deal with an isolated teenage girl who is in some ways attracted into a ‘community’ or a set of relationships. In the second of the trilogy, Tomboy (2011), questions of gender and identity are approached with more circumspection and the ‘issue’ is set partly in a family context. In the third film, Girlhood, the sociology of the lead character’s situation is laid out in more detail. (A review of Girlhood will arrive soon.)

The ‘water lilies’ of the title are the teams of young female synchronised swimmers based in a pool in Ile de France (the same outer suburbs, where the director grew up, that appear in Tomboy). The central character is Marie (Pauline Acquart) a skinny young girl who is attractive but appears younger than her close friend Anne (Louise Blachère). Anne, one of the swimmers, is chasing boys but Marie is fascinated by the girls in the pool and in particular the tall and glamorous captain of the senior team, Floriane (Adèle Haenel). Floriane seems to revel in her reputation as a ‘slag’ (or ‘slut’ – not sure about the accuracy of the subtitles, the terms have slightly different meanings in British English)) and the other girls assume that she is regularly sleeping with the local boys. But is she? Marie seems quite prepared to join the team in order to find out. Does she know that this may offend Anne? Both Anne and Floriane are chasing the same boy.

Water Lilies is a film about hormones and teenage angst. The (‘mature’) female audience members I watched it with were reminded of the agonies of teenage life but didn’t really take to the film. For my part, as a mystified middle-aged male, I found the film fascinating in terms of the single-mindedness and bravery of Marie in seeking what she wanted. I think Céline Sciamma is a major talent and I’m trying to think of an American or British film that comes anywhere near the directness and acute observation of this trilogy. I suppose Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen (US 2003) gets somewhere near but most of the leading British female directors (Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay, Clio Barnard) tend to focus as much on boys as girls and I can’t immediately think of films that focus on teenage girls en masse in quite the same way. Reading through IMDB comments on the film, Sofia Coppola’s name comes up but arguably the strongest films presenting younger teenage girls are Fucking Åmål (Show Me Love, Sweden 1998) and We Are the Best! (Sweden 2013) by Lukas Moodysson (helped on the latter by his partner’s script).

Marie spies on Floriane.

Marie spies on Floriane.

Unlike in Tomboy there are virtually no parents seen in Water Lilies and the three girls seem to come and go as they please (I assume it is the summer holiday season). The lack of parents/family (no awkward siblings) is perhaps simply part of the minimalism of the film. There are few of the other trappings of the youth picture (no pop songs, clashes with ‘authority’, cultural differences expressed through food/drink/teen slang etc.). In this interview Céline Sciamma explains that the focus on just the girls was deliberate – forcing the viewer to identify with 15 year-old girls and how they see the world. During the promotional period for the film at festivals Sciamma outed herself and this film could be categorised as part of lesbian cinema. However, it seemed to me that the questions of gender identity it raises are just as mixed as they are in Tomboy. The focus on long sequences in the pool and in the showers offer a mise en scène that is clammy, overheated and loaded with metaphors for sexual congress (something shared with a number of other ‘pool-based’ films, including Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End). It would be interesting to know how many teachers have thought about using this film with 15 year-old students to stimulate discussion around gender identity. I suspect that many might be worried by the direct approach. For me there is nothing prurient about this film (though I guess going by the dictionary definition of the word it would be possible to argue that there is). What would be useful to discuss is the difference between those films that use the girls’ changing room as the site of excitement for the male gaze (the Porky’s films from the 1980s and perhaps De Palma’s Carrie) and this film (and a film featuring boys in a similar situation like if . . . .) which see the changing room and the showers as a site for personal discoveries about sexual identity. The image of Marie above reminds me of Sister Ruth spying on Sister Clodagh in Black Narcissus (UK 1947).

Reading comments on the film, I’m taken by the number of young people who enjoy the film and take it for what it is. Some of them suggest that they like the music. I didn’t notice it so that probably proves that it is appropriate for a youth picture.

The trailer for the film is useful in conveying the setting but distorts the narrative by focusing solely on one relationship. The sequences featuring the third character Anne are important too: