La Fémis is the state film school in Paris once known as IDHEC. Every year several hundred applicants for new places are put through a competitive entrance exam which can last for three months and three rounds of ‘analysis’ (in this case of a clip from a Kurosawa Kiyoshi film), projects and interviews. Claire Simon’s documentary follows one cohort through all three phases and finishes with the group photograph celebrating the formal acceptance of the small group of successful applicants (around 40?). Simon herself is a graduate of the school and she follows the individual candidates objectively – this isn’t like reality TV.
La Fémis works on the principle that industry personnel are responsible for selecting each year’s new intake using an agreed set of guidelines and as we might expect, the most gripping parts of the documentary are arguably those in which we see these practitioners arguing among themselves about who should be accepted.
It’s very difficult for me to know how this film might be received by audiences with little sense of the issues at stake in an exercise like this. I’ve spent a large chunk of my working life thinking about examining and assessing students and I was fascinated by this insight. All the interview panels and assessors took their roles seriously – but often ended up with contradictory conclusions about who was a suitable applicant to recommend. In the clip below, disagreement about a candidate in Round 2 (the project) hinges on if it matters that he is ‘crazy’ – and someone wonders how a Cronenberg or a Dreyer would have got on in a competition like this:
La Fémis takes candidates for distinct specialist roles such as director, screenwriter, cinematographer etc. I was also pleased to see that there is now an intake of students who want to specialise in film distribution – and we see some being interviewed by cinema owners and distributors. Later, in the Q & A after the screening, we heard that La Fémis also now takes students from ‘diverse’ backgrounds for one-year courses t enable them to network and make contacts with industry personnel. This sounds like a progressive move, but I hope that they will also increase the number of students from diverse backgrounds for the standard four-year course. In relation to this Claire Simon made an important point in the Q & A when she said that she realised, in the edit suite, that only students from certain backgrounds were able to talk about themselves in interviews in the ways expected by the applications procedures. This puts pressure on the practitioners on interview panels who have to look for the signs of an applicant who could develop these skills even if they don’t have them at the moment. It might also suggest that the system needs tweaking.
I’m not sure what the possibility of seeing this film in the UK will be but if you get the chance I would heartily recommend it. I was impressed by the industry personnel taking part in the selection process. They were actively seeking to select students who might benefit from the course. Some were more progressive than others but all had a very realistic view of the opportunities and were genuinely trying to help candidates whilst also trying to maintain standards – and protecting their colleagues from candidates who might be difficult to work with and not productive. It isn’t an easy task. I don’t know how La Fémis compares to film schools elsewhere but this film confirmed my view of French cinema as healthy in the current climate.
Nowhere in Africa is an engrossing film and it is no surprise that it won the Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2002. It is adapted from an autobiographical novel by Stefanie Zweig in which she explores her childhood experience of arriving in Kenya in 1938. On the Region 2 DVD Zweig says that one of the features of the film that she appreciated most was the representation of rural Africa. She felt that writer-director Caroline Link had captured the beauty that she had experienced as a child without resorting to the simply picturesque or exotic (“no lions or leopards”). This is an important observation which rings true. The film raises a number of unanswered questions but in respect of its images it is certainly one of the best European perspectives on Africa in the mid 20th century.
1938. Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze), a successful lawyer in Hesse, has left Germany and taken a job as farm manager in Kenya. He fears the rise of the Nazis and as a (non-practising) Jew thinks it wise to leave his comfortable middle-class existence for rural Africa. Stricken with malaria he has arranged for his wife and small daughter to join him. Jettel (Juliane Köhler) enjoys her comfortable life and ignores her husband’s plea to bring useful items. 8 year-old Regina is less happy in Germany and immediately takes to Africa and especially to her father’s cook Owuor who has used local knowledge to care for Walter during his bout of malaria. When war breaks Walter is interned by the British and Jettel and Regina lose their home but with the help of Nairobi’s Jewish community solutions are found and the family are soon together again on a different farm. The film follows the family up until their departure from Kenya in 1947 when they return to Germany. The drama comes from the different experiences of each member of the family as well as the relationships between them (and with Owuor and the local Pokot people). The fifth major character is Süsskind, another German Jewish man who migrated earlier than Walter and who helps the Redlich family at various times.
The narrative is constructed in retrospect by Regina as she travels back to Germany in 1947. The film begins and ends with her voiceover. The three central characters each represent a different approach to the problems of migration. Walter is the rationalist (though he also claims to be an idealist). They had to leave. He doesn’t want to be a farmer but he’ll buckle down. The war changes him – he joins the British Army in Kenya and he uses the demobilisation scheme to get the family back to Germany. Jettel follows a classic Hollywood ‘journey’. Initially she finds it hard to adjust and her middle-class, European stance makes it difficult for her to get on with Owuor and the local people. Eventually though she becomes a farmer and is reluctant to return. Jettel’s story might have made a conventional melodrama. Regina ‘blossoms’ in Africa. She is the narrator of the story and she mixes not only with Owuor but also the local children. It is not until she attends an English boarding school in Nairobi that she feels ‘alien’. Since she makes the transition over nine years from little girl to bright teenager it is more difficult to assess how she feels in the closing scenes (since she now understands more about her parents’ marriage).
Nowhere in Africa is a long film (140 mins) and some critics/reviewers have argued that the narrative drive is lost in the final third. There is something in this charge and sometimes the film does feel more like a memoir of a period than a filmic narrative in the mainstream sense. This might also take something away from those unanswered questions.
British colonial Africa
Nowhere in Africa was commercially successful in Germany ($10 million) and in North America ($6 million). The third biggest territory was Spain (over $2 million) and then Australia. In the UK, Box Office Mojo quotes $400,00 – not bad for a subtitled film, but half the Australian total and not much more than Argentina ($370,000). The first three UK reviews of the film that I found each see the film as underwhelming, simplistic, ‘safe’ etc. These reviews also tend to be inaccurate as well as missing some of the interesting angles. Perhaps the film suffered from comparisons – to Polanski’s The Pianist and Out of Africa, the Isaak Dinesen story that became a Hollywood melodrama with Meryl Streep? I’m not sure that either is a useful comparison, though Out of Africa does share several important elements. The reviews don’t really pick up the colonial melodrama issues that interest me. In several ways, the most interesting link would be to the Claire Denis film Chocolat (France/WGer/Cameroon 1988) – which also features the daughter of middle-class Europeans and their family servants.
Kenya has always been prominent in British cinema’s relationship with colonial Africa – and with the whole ideological terrain of colonialism, independence struggles and post-colonialism. Putting aside the specific case of South Africa, Kenya was perhaps the most attractive colony for European settlement, based to some extent on plantation development for tea, coffee and maize. The climate and the fertility in the ‘White Highlands’ of Central Kenya meant that were reserved for white settlers by the colonial administrations – displacing local farmers and reducing grazing land for nomadic peoples. The settlers were mainly middle-class British, but also other Europeans and in UK popular culture their lifestyle was seen as hedonistic in the ‘Happy Valley’ region – later represented in the film White Mischief (UK 1987). The exclusivity in this region also helped to encourage local political independence movements which began to be active in the 1920s and grew in strength immediately after 1945. In the early 1950s the same area became an important location for British adventure films including Where No Vultures Fly (1951) – which dealt with game poaching and the struggle to establish national parks in Kenya.
Nowhere in Africa is interesting in not really featuring the British upper middle-class settlers and instead offering more practical settler-farmers with few graces. One farmer has to use the cook as a translator as Walter has learned some Swahili but not English. When Jettel and Regina are interred in a hotel in Nairobi, however, it is a very upmarket establishment and their other experiences include meeting the Nairobi Jewish community, who are British and middle-class, and experiencing the boarding school. When they do begin effective farming, the crop is maize which was mainly introduced by the British as a cash crop. The simmering political unrest is not directly represented – though arguably it is still there. One of the telling lines of dialogue is from an old man who Walter meets when he starts work on the second farm. The man says he knows the land and can help – he’s known in for 40 years. He then says that “if someone steals your cow and eats it, you can forget it. But if they steal your land it is still there and you’ll never forget it”. He is prepared to help because Walter is not a ‘bwana’ who seeks to get rich by stealing more land. This is one of the scenes in which Regina is not present and therefore one she must invent from what she understands happened to her parents. The whole narrative is narrated from her perspective – which was a child’s and then a teenager’s. She was at that age less interested in politics and more in love with the country and its (native) peoples.
I would recommend Nowhere in Africa for several reasons, including excellent performances by the principals. It offers a different European perspective on Africa, one that is still eurocentric but is less trapped in the coloniser-colonised binary. It’s also a film about a girl growing up that to my ageing male eye seems to be authentic and well worth engaging with. I’d also be interested in a film which told the parents’ story in more detail. I found the film in the bargain bin at Fopp (£3 for a DVD) and I consider it money well spent.
This final screening in HOME’s Brazilian Weekender was introduced by Lúcia Sa, Professor in Brazilian Cultural Studies at the University of Manchester. She informed us that the film had only opened in Brazil in June 2016 so it was something of a coup to see it in Manchester now. When I checked later I realised that since the film was co-produced with France it stands a good chance of getting a European release, certainly in France but perhaps also other territories. It had its world première at Toronto last year and also appeared in Berlin, Rome and at the American Film Market. Lúcia also told us that the director, Sandra Kogut, is from a Hungarian family. Further research reveals she has lived in France and worked in Europe and had artworks exhibited in New York. Might we then expect a view of contemporary Brazil from a global perspective?
Professor Sa suggested that the film we were about to see was about the ‘divided space’ of Rio de Janeiro. The film’s title refers to one of the poorer outlying areas to the west of the city. One morning, Regina, a wealthy woman in the affluent district of Ipanema in the South Zone (Zona Sul), is told by her maid that a small girl has been left in the entrance hall of the building with instructions not to move until her mother returns. Later the girl, Rayane, will be joined by her older brother Ygor (he’s around 9, she is perhaps 5). Neither knows where their mother has gone or the address of where they live with her. Regina at first tries to get rid of both of the children by phoning the local council and getting them put into care. But the mystery remains – why have they come to her door? Regina also has her own problems. She is splitting from her husband and her daughter, who is studying for college exams, is moving between the two. Is she being a ‘bad mother’? How does she feel as a middle-aged woman facing a possibly lonely future? Regina is also packing to move and the film carefully links her domestic chaos to the frantic building work taking place across the city. When Ygor re-appears at her door, she has a change of heart and tries to find his mother and his home. In the film’s Press Pack, director and co-writer Sandra Kogut explains that she sees the chaos of the city as both in one sense ‘realist’ and in another sense expressionistic as it represents the turmoil in the heads of the characters. The domestic chaos of Regina’s apartment is similarly bewildering for the children.
Campo Grande is 80 kilometres from Ipanema and when Regina makes the journey to find Ygor’s grandmother’s house she feels completely disorientated – she would never normally visit a place like this. Kogut also explains that although she wasn’t aiming for ‘realism’ as such she did use a methodology with the mainly non-professional cast that meant they didn’t know what would happen from scene to scene and that they stayed in position in designated settings such as Regina’s apartment for several days to get used to their situation. The street scenes were filmed ‘live’ – i.e. without blocking off traffic or using extras. Kogut is also an experienced documentary filmmaker. This approach is in fact quite similar to that of ‘social realist’ filmmakers such as Ken Loach. I also wondered if this might be a ‘realist melodrama’. It certainly seems that way and music is quite important in the narrative, including Regina’s daughter’s rendition of the John Lennon song ‘Love’ on the piano and a Brazilian pop song that Ygor claims is his grandmother’s favourite. The performances are generally very good. Carla Ribas who plays Regina is one of the few professionals in the cast.
Two further points about the film’s ‘look’ are important. As Lúcia Sa suggested, there are several scenes when the camera adopts the child’s perspective – shooting from a much lower ‘eye level’. There is also a more frequent use of close-ups and shallow depth of focus than might be expected in a film using a ‘realist’ aesthetic. In this sense the film is similar to the first of the Weekender films I saw, Jonas e seu circo sem lona, a ‘pure’ documentary. Campo Grande certainly highlights the inequality in Rio de Janeiro, though I suspect that something similar could be found in narratives set in many cities. I should also note that something else the director says, about the ways in which wealthy Brazilians develop very fluid relationships with maids and other servants, ties this film in with The Second Mother (Brazil 2015). You can probably guess why the mother of Ygor and Rayane left her children at Regina’s door. I’ll just reassure you that there is a resolution of sorts.
Here is the official Brazilian trailer – no English subs but it gives you the ‘feel’ of the film:
I’d heard many good things about Greta Gerwig and specifically about Frances Ha (US 2012) but so far I hadn’t seen any of her films. On this basis I decided to watch Maggie’s Plan. The smaller Cinema 2 at Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre was nearly full for an early evening show. Perhaps that isn’t surprising. Released through Sony Classics, Maggie’s Plan had what was once a standard specialised cinema release on 80 screens across the UK & Ireland and entered the Top 15 with a £100,000 on its first weekend. Is this an example of the new form of acceptable arthouse cinema for middle-class audiences in the UK?
Greta Gerwig is Maggie, a New York university teacher in her late twenties who has decided that she wants a baby, but doesn’t want a long-term lover/partner/husband because she doesn’t think she can sustain a long-term relationship. Her ‘plan’ involves self-insemination with sperm from a donor she knows but the plan is immediately jeopardised by a meeting with John, another teacher played by Ethan Hawke. He is in turn married to Julianne Moore as a Danish lecturer with a comedy European accent and hair drawn tightly back. Hawke’s teacher is an aspiring novelist teaching ‘ficto-critical anthropology’. His wife is rather more prestigious in the same field and she has tenure at Columbia plus a distinguished publications record. Maggie initially seeks to help him with his first novel. She has two close friends, Felicia and Tony, a couple with a small child who are ‘quirky’ in their behaviour but otherwise quite together and they are the foil for Maggie’s encounters with the Hawke/Moore characters.
The Hawke character immediately evokes his other author roles in Richard Linklater’s ‘Sunset’ trilogy (with Julie Delpy) and in Pawel Pawlikowski’s The Woman in the Fifth (France/UK/Poland 2011). In each case he is an American novelist, but unfortunately in Maggie’s Plan Rebecca Miller’s script and direction don’t manage to keep the usually excellent Hawke within bounds. His acting style doesn’t match that of Greta Gerwig and I found his character insufferable. Probably though it’s his playing against Julianne Moore who seems to be in another film entirely, over-playing manically, that is the real problem. Again Ms Moore is usually very good, so script and direction seem to be the issue.
There isn’t much plot in the film so the narrative relies on sharp dialogue and performances. Fortunately, Greta Gerwig fits her role well and she is always entertaining to watch. Her costumes – mostly sensible shoes and woollens are suitable for a New York winter. Sometimes they look a bit ‘clod-hoppy’ but mainly her engaging personality pulls her through. Not conventionally ‘beautiful’, Ms Gerwig is very attractive because she is at ease with her body and allows her personality to shine. She is at the centre of the comic moments for me, but reading other comments, I see that some find these scenes don’t work and that opinion is equally divided on the snappy dialogue. Maggie’s Plan is ‘clever’ but I don’t think it is ‘cool’ or ‘smart’ (i.e. in the way that films like Ghost World (US 2001) were once described because of their appeal to a specific demographic). It’s been variously described as an ‘indie rom-com’ and a ‘screwball comedy’. The latter seems some way off the mark to me. The film ends with the possibility of something slightly sentimental. I should add that there are children involved in the various relationships – all of whom are well-written and well-acted.
Maggie’s Plan appears to be a film more loved by critics than by the general audience (Rotten Tomatoes scores it 86% for critics as against 66% for audiences) – but perhaps more so by a specialised film audience. People around me certainly laughed, but often at gags that I didn’t find funny. Conversely, I smiled at moments which didn’t evoke laughter at all. I read that the film could be bracketed with Shakespearean comedies and Woody Allen – neither of which I can claim to know/enjoy. Maggie’s Plan is doing well at the box office and it certainly offers entertainment. I’ll definitely look for more Greta Gerwig performances, but perhaps I’ll avoid this kind of New York comedy.
The US trailer (which reveals the rest of the plot):