Category: Films by women

LFF 2019 #14: Atlantique (Atlantics, Senegal-France-Belgium 2019)

Ada meets her friend Dior

Atlantique won the Sutherland Award for ‘Best First Feature’ at LFF 2019. This follows the Grand Prix at Cannes earlier in the year. Although the film is now held by Netflix it will appear at the Leeds International Film Festival in November and maybe others as well. Netflix has announced plans to distribute films through independent cinemas in the UK so I hope many of you will see this film as it is meant to be seen on a big screen. It’s arguably the highest profile African film for some time and it’s great that it lives up to its billing.

Writer-director Mati Diop is the niece of Djibril Diop Mambéty. I mention this not to diminish Ms Diop, who has already produced five celebrated short and medium-length films to add to her acting career, but to underline her achievement in picking up the baton and linking Senegal’s celebrated cinematic past with the vibrancy of its contemporary popular culture and political struggles. I could see elements of her film possibly drawing on the work of Sembène Ousmane’s Xala (Senegal 1975) with disadvantaged people invading the house of a corrupt business man and also elements of her uncle’s film Touki Bouki (Senegal 1973) (which was also the subject of her short film Mille soleils (France 2013)). Atlantique is a development of an earlier Mati Diop short film Atlantiques (2009). That short addressed the recent stories of young Senegalese attempting dangerous sea crossings to the nearest EU port. Those sea crossings are also an offscreen element of this new feature, which also ties in with both migration films such as La pirogue (Senegal-France-Germany 2012) and films which tap into the supernatural in African narratives such as War Witch (Canada 2012).

Souleimain

Atlantique begins with workers on a new building project in a district of Dakar. When they discover that yet again there is no prospect of getting paid this week they protest loudly but eventually return to their homes outside the city. With no income for their families a group of the younger men decide that attempting a dangerous sea crossing to the Canaries, the nearest EU territory, offers their only chance of finding work and money. One of them, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), says goodbye to his teenage girlfriend Ada (Mama Sané). Deeply in love with her young man, Ada faces an arranged marriage to an older man with little chance of escape. Her family want her to marry as the man is wealthy and imports goods from Europe. But as the wedding begins a few days later, a fire breaks out, halting the proceedings. A new detective at the local police station comes to begin an investigation and Ada seeks out the support of her girlfriends and in particular Dior (Nicole Sougou) who runs a bar on the sea front. More fires start in the area and some people begin to feel ill, including the detective. I won’t spoil any more of the plot. Instead I’ll refer to the Press Pack and what Mati Diop says about her film.

The symbol of corruption which dominates the skyline

Ms Diop grew up in France and she says that her film in some ways refers to the adolescence in Senegal that she never had. She also stresses that the film is a romance and that apart from her uncle’s film she can’t think of many other romances between young African people. But though the romance is very important, there are other things going on here. The film’s tagline is a ‘ghost love story’. Diop explains that the building site featured at the beginning of the film is part of a new up-market development on the edge of Dakar. This is real, but the imposing tower seen in several shots is a CGI rendering resembling what was planned by the former president of Senegal Abdoulaye Wade. This fantasy element is then followed up by the fires that begin spontaneously, the sickness and the young women who appear possessed. The inference is clear. The corruption of the neo-colonialists who prey upon the people has been met by something akin to a ‘popular will’ expressed in spiritual terms. There are some factors here that I couldn’t quite work out on a first viewing. For instance, the new police detective is young, seemingly smart and not tainted by the corruption. But he gets sick as well. Is he another metaphorical character, representative of how young professionals might be seduced by a corrupt system? He does also represent a familiar figure, the ‘modernised’ man asked to investigate a crime involving a traditional social ritual

The look and the sound of the film are very important and Mati Diop chose to work with two women who added a great deal to the impact of the film (I should also note that she co-wrote the film with Olivier Demangel). Here is the director on Fatima Al Qadiri’s music:

I knew that the soundtrack was going to have to be responsible for the film’s invisible component – everything that is present, but that we don’t see, that we can’t film. The world of spirits. The film takes place in a world where the fantastic is embodied and emerges within the characters themselves before entering reality.

Cinematographer Claire Mathon has a strong documentary background and it was this that attracted Mati Diop as well as her experience on features:

I knew that she would know how to apply a documentary approach (to shoot quickly, catch things on the fly, spontaneously invent things) without losing any aesthetic ambition.

The actors in the film are mainly non-professionals who took part in workshops with Diop and one of the few veteran actors in the cast before shooting began. I hope you can get a sense of camera, sound and performances from the trailer:

LFF 2019 #8: Made in Bangladesh (Bangladesh-France-Denmark-Portugal 2019)

The workers at ‘Modern Apparel’

One of several revelations during my LFF visit, this is an excellent film that deserves wide distribution. Writer-director Rubaiyat Hossain was present with her lead actor and others for an intriguing Q&A and I was very pleased to discover a filmmaker who I had not known about before – certainly a weakness on my part. Ms Hossain has followed a trajectory familiar from those of some women in Indian independent cinema – education and training in the US alongside film production and ‘social activism’ back in Bangladesh. Her first film as a director, Meherjaan in 2011, caused a stir in Bangladesh with its story of the impact of the 1971 War of Independence on a woman’s life and was taken out of cinemas. Her second film Under Construction (2015) is concerned with a woman in an unhappy marriage and who is an actor appearing in a Tagore play. Researching her background, I’m now glad I didn’t ask a naïve question about the possible influence of Indian parallel cinema on Hossain’s work – Wikipedia tells me that she has been inspired by the work of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak.

Made in Bangladesh, as the title hints, is concerned with the sweatshops of Dhaka where young women work to produce cheap clothes for customers in Europe and North America. But as the director stated, it isn’t about these women as victims, but instead about how they fight for their rights. Its origins are in the account of the experiences of a ‘real’ worker that have been translated into a fiction narrative featuring the actor Rikita Nandini Shimu as a young seamstress ‘Shimu’. The original worker also helped organise training for the women playing the factory workers. The director acknowledged that she needed this kind of input to ensure the authenticity of her presentation of the women’s stories. The narrative begins with a fire alarm in a factory which shuts down operations for a few days and raises questions about working conditions, safety and workers’ rights after one of the workers has died. During the closure Shimu tries to meet the managers and get paid her overtime which she needs to pay rent arrears. This is when she meets an NGO activist who offers to pay her for an interview about what goes on in the factory. She informs Shimu about how to form a union and offers to help her generally. The narrative then follows Shimu’s attempts to develop a political consciousness about rights among her workmates and to try to recruit enough would-be members to register a union for official recognition. The narrative presents a series of events that were once familiar in British, French and other film cultures in the 1970s before filmmaking lost much of its political energy in the West. Rubaiyat Hossain manages to resolve her narrative in an interesting way that I won’t spoil.

The director is second from the left, next to Shimu who has the microphone during the Q&A

But there is more to the narrative on top of the important central story-line. In the Q&A Hossain revealed that wages for the young workers (most are aged 18-30) have improved over the last few years. The garment manufacturing sector is a crucial part of the Bangladeshi economy and these young women have some leverage. Like all young people who start to receive a living wage they find themselves in a situation which allows them to ‘have a good time’, but also puts them under pressure to help with other family members. In some ways the women are similar to the young British working-class girls of the 1960s who experienced economic improvement but still found themselves struggling in a patriarchal society which attempted to define them. The director stressed the idea of female empowerment and reminded us that Bangladesh has a history of female prime ministers and women in positions of power. I’m not sure that this has necessarily helped the mass of Bangladeshi women so far, but the general point is important. The freedom experienced by the young women in the factories is expressed through their clothing. The director commented that they wear salwar kameez rather than the saris favoured by most women in the city. This is more comfortable and functional in the factory but also allows more freedom as they move together through the streets where the colours of their costumes contrast with the drabness of the city.

The style of the film is a familiar form of social realism enlivened by music and the exuberance of the women themselves. Sabine Lancelin photographed the film. She was born in colonial Belgian Congo. Composer Tin Soheili was born in Iran and is based in Denmark. He has a long list of credits, many for documentaries. There were several women in other creative roles on the shoot and overall it is a good example of European producers supporting but not overwhelming a Bangladeshi production.

Shimu faces pressure from her husband at home

Shimu (the same actor who was in Hossain’s earlier films) is a young woman from a rural area who left home at the age of 14 and fled to Dhaka to escape an arranged marriage to a man she feared. She had received enough elementary education to become literate and this, combined with her native intelligence, makes her a potential activist. But she has married in Dhaka and though she loves her husband he is out of work. When he does find employment she may be under pressure to spend more time at home. When she is working, she is paying the rent. The narrative shows Shimu in a range of relationships with other women, several of whom exert different kinds of pressure on her activities in forming a union. Social class, traditional ideas about women’s roles etc. all make an impact.

Shimu is given a book on the legal basis for a factory union

The questions in the Q&A and the comments in various reviews always puzzle me. There are many assumptions made about people in countries like Bangladesh. Ms Hossain handled all the questions well. She explained that the film hasn’t yet cleared the Censors’ office in Bangladesh. She explained that she was prepared to make cuts to ensure the film was screened and that she wanted the widest release possible so the workers in the factories would get to see themselves on screen. I understand that discussions with possible distributors in the UK were possible during the festival. I hope something is organised as I’m sure there is a market for the film in the UK, both among the local Bangla populations and for many other UK audiences who are aware of and energised by campaigns to pay these women more and regulate the factories who make the clothes sold in UK stores. International sales are through Pyramide and the film will be released in France in November.

Here’s the (English subtitled) trailer:

LFF 2019 #5: The Perfect Candidate (Saudi Arabia-Germany 2019)

Maryam, the doctor wearing a niqab at work at the beginning of the narrative

The third cinema film by writer-director Haifaa Al Mansour is a return to the successful mix of elements in her first feature, Wadjda in 2012. (She also directed a Netflix film Nappily Ever After, a romantic comedy, in 2018.) This new film returns her to a narrative about a woman in contemporary Saudi Arabia (KSA) following the difficult development process of her second feature Mary Shelley in 2018. I found this new film engaging and enjoyable but it raises several questions (as did Wadjda). A number of cultural/social changes have taken place in the KSA in the last few years and the film enters into a discourse about what women might be able to achieve in various ways. I was surprised by some of the narrative developments and I did wonder to what extent the events were fantasy/wish fulfilment. As I left at the end of the screening a young woman ran past me and several others shouting at the top of her voice and accusing the audience of laughing at the central character, saying it wasn’t funny and that the character would have been stoned to death in the real world. Each of us on the stairs were stunned by this and puzzled. None of us thought the film was necessarily a comedy, but certainly there are moments of humour in what is a rich and detailed script. However, this rather violent reaction does point to a genuine scepticism about how we should read the film. I have also seen reviews that describe the film as a comedy.

The sisters working on the electoral campaign

The narrative involves a family. The father, a distinguished musician and singer is still grieving for his recently deceased wife and is perhaps less concerned about what his three daughters are getting up to than other Saudi patriarchs. I presume that the youngest daughter, Sara, is still at school or college. Her two older sisters have different ideas and different jobs. Selma is an organiser of weddings – a big deal for wealthy families in KSA – and Maryam has trained as a doctor and is now working in a small local hospital on the edge of the town outside Riyadh. Maryam is ambitious for her own career but events will push her in unexpected directions as she becomes the central focus of the narrative. It’s worth noting, however, that her father has his own narrative which involves getting his band of traditional popular musicians back on the road. Such music has been repressed by the authorities for many years but now a new ‘National Band’ is to be set up by the state. Through a complicated series of events Maryam almost accidentally becomes a candidate for the local council and she then targets the need to build a proper road to her hospital as the basis for her campaign.

Maryam has the courage to speak at her first campaign event – to an audience of women and therefore can appear ‘unveiled’

My first thought about the film was that it drew on similar events to those in films like Rana’s Wedding (Palestine-Neth-UAE 2002), At Five in the Afternoon (Iran-France 2003) and Permission (Iran 2018). In each of these films, a young woman is attempting to achieve something important but is blocked at crucial moments by a system that forces her to get permission, usually from a male authority figure, or to go through bureaucratic processes that are more difficult for women, especially when they are veiled. This new film presents us with a political candidate completely covered by a burqa as in At Five in the Afternoon. Each of these films also  eventually involves the woman in personal dramas which are used to critique more general social issues. My second point thought has been that Haifaa Al Mansour finds herself in a similar situation to Gurinder Chadha in the UK in that she is approaching issues about her own culture through forms of popular entertainment that may involve familiar ‘feelgood’ elements. It’s significant that both women have American partners (who are also co-writers) and have made films in the US. They have both then faced quite polarised responses by critics and by social commentators and general cinema audiences. The Perfect Candidate was reviewed after its Venice appearance by Jay Weissberg of Variety as a totally formulaic film in which plot points are signalled well in advance and which the characters themselves carry the plotline because the film is otherwise visually bland. Other reviews praise the film for its message of female empowerment. It is worth noting, however, that the film is sanctioned by the Saudi Film Council and that it is officially the Saudi entry for the Foreign Language Oscar competition. So it is clearly not seen as ‘radical’ – or at least not ‘dangerously’ so. But these kinds of judgements can backfire. Without spoiling the narrative I can note that our female protagonist both ‘loses’ and ‘wins’. Audiences take what they want from films. If young women in Saudi Arabia (and other countries) get to see the film and are inspired to attempt some form of social rebellion, no matter how small-scale and limited, the film will have had an effect.

Maryam’s father has his own story on the road with his fellow band members

The plot may be formulaic and the narrative an over optimistic fantasy but the script manages to tie the father’s narrative to that of his daughter. Again this made me think of Gurinder Chadha’s films in which in similar communities of strong women in patriarchal societies, it is the father’s support which confirms the possibility of change. The performances in the film are generally very good including Mila Al Zahrani as Maryam and Khalid Abdulraheem as her father. As in Wadjda, the director is relying on established TV actors with little opportunity to play in films. Selma, the videographer is played by a well-known Saudi ‘social media influencer’ Dhay (Dae Al Hilali). The film also features a female wedding singer played by Khadeeja Mua’th, a major star in Saudi Arabia who made me think of an African-American soul singer. There are 10 million foreigners in Saudi Arabia, most of whom are migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Egypt and elsewhere in Asia. I don’t think this population was represented in the film, though there are characters who might be of African origin. When I told a friend I’d seen a film made in Saudi Arabia he said he thought it was a disgusting regime and he wouldn’t watch a Saudi film. I can understand this reaction but I think films always tell us something about the societies they depict and The Perfect Candidate has prompted me to research the country a little more. At the moment, I don’t think the film has been picked up for UK distribution. Here’s the international trailer.

LFF 2019 #1: The House of Us (South Korea 2019)

The three girls who create a ‘House of Us’

This charming and enjoyable film is difficult to categorise. It is a potential family melodrama that evolves into a story about its central character Hana, a girl of 11 or 12. Hana’s story has elements of comedy and drama and also perhaps a gentle critique of our expectations of family life. With its bright colours and music it also made me think of anime and manga and I think that it offers something distinctively Korean or Japanese.

As the narrative begins, Hana is being elected as the ‘Best Classmate’ at the end of Summer Term. She rushes home full of energy and enthusiasm but is soon deflated by her parents’ squabbles and her older brother’s indifference. Strangely, the ‘Best Classmate’ seems to have no friends in her home district – or perhaps they are away for the summer? But one day she finds a younger girl, 7 year-old Yoo-jin, who appears to be lost in a supermarket. Searching for the girl’s parents, Hana finds instead Yoo-mi, the girl’s 9 year-old sister. Gradually Hana will be drawn into the sister’s world as they are mostly alone in a flat while their parents are working on a summer job several miles away. It’s the perfect opportunity for Hana to practice all the nurturing skills she isn’t allowed to carry out at home. The ‘House of Us’ turns out to be a house made by the three girls out of cardboard waste as just one of several craft-based activities. Hana becomes more like a mother than an older sister, revelling in the chance to cook.

The girls undertake an adventure

Hana’s solution for her own disjointed family is for the four of them to go on a ‘family trip’. But is this likely to happen? An adventure with the two younger girls sounds more like a possibility. The film is in effect narrated by Hana. It’s a child’s perspective on a world she doesn’t totally understand and isn’t yet able to come to terms with. This means that writer-director Yoon Ga-eun’s film shifts between a child’s adventure and an adult family drama, as we learn more about both Hana and her ‘two families’. The film is the second feature by the director to look at the emotional lives of young girls, the first being The World of Us in 2016. The database of the Korean Film Council reveals that the film was released on 147 screens in South Korea, drawing 52,000 admissions and $353,000 to date at the box office.

There are five Korean films in the festival and I think it’s good that we get to see films like this. South Korea is a developed film culture which enables intelligent and enjoyable films like this to get a wide-ish release. I think a similar film would struggle to get such a release in the UK. But I think quite a few parents would like to share a film like this with their children. The film ultimately stands or falls on the performance of Kim Na-yeon as Hana and I think she does an excellent job. My only concern was the Korean diet on display. Hana has to produce a cookbook as a school holiday project and her only recipes seem to include meat, kimchi and far too many eggs and ketchup!