The different language cinemas of Spain are not necessarily known for the work of female directors and so this second film by the Catalan director Mar Coll offered a rare treat during the ¡Viva! Weekender at HOME in Manchester. The ‘her’ that everyone wants to do their best for is Geni (short for Eugenia), a 38 year-old middle-class woman in Barcelona who we first meet in her doctor’s office. She has clearly suffered both physical and mental damage as the result of a traumatic accident – though the precise nature of this is not revealed until much later in the narrative. Eventually we realise that Geni is not making the progress back to ‘normal’ bourgeois life that is expected of her. In a marvellous performance by Nora Navas, Geni is revealed as unable to be as articulate as she once was and to have become forgetful and lacking in the kind of confidence and social skills she needs to return to work as a legal executive (it isn’t clear if she is actually qualified as a lawyer).
Geni is married to Dani, an architect and she is part of an extended family with a wealthy father and grown-up siblings, though one of her sisters is also in some form of therapy. All the family attempt to ‘care’ for her but none are able to appreciate how she feels and consequently they seem to be trying to erect a cocoon for her within which she will find a way to return to normality. Her one chance of ‘breaking free’ comes when, by chance, she meets an old school friend who she hasn’t seen for twenty years. Mariana (Valeria Bertuccelli) is a ‘wild’ Argentinian who claims to have travelled the world but who is now trying to get a job that will allow her to live abroad permanently. Perhaps Geni can join her in some way? In practice this proves quite difficult. The narrative has an open ending that didn’t please a couple of people sitting behind me but seems the best outcome in the circumstances. The dissatisfied audience members thought that the film was depressing but as another of their group said, “this is reality”.
I ‘enjoyed’ the film mainly because of the central performance and I felt that I had come to understand how she felt. It occurs to me that many of us don’t face the same questions until we retire – when we don’t have the constant pressures of work (or running a home) to pre-occupy us. I’m not sure if it is better or worse to confront the pressures to conform when you are 38 than it is when you are 68. Reviews of the film refer to it as a ‘tragi-comedy’. I did think it was sometimes like the ‘comedy of embarassment’ that I personally find hard to watch. Most of the time I felt anger on behalf of Geni rather than laughter at the situation. The weakness in the film is that the other characters don’t get much opportunity to make their case, apart from Mariana. She says that Dani is a bit of a ‘dickhead’. That may be true but we can’t be sure from how we see him behave – he does try to fulfil the caring role but spurns Geni’s demands for intimacy. I don’t mind the open ending but we do need a bit more about who he is and a bit more about the rest of the family as well.
I can’t remember much distinctive about the look of the film but the soundtrack has some lively jazz, including Django Rheinhardt. I’m grateful for Rebecca Naughten’s usual perceptive review for pointing out that Mariana ‘erupts’ into the narrative in a red coat. She is also the means by which Geni watches a rather wonderful B movie which the subtitles refer to as ‘What Have We Done to Deserve This?’ – a reference perhaps to the early films of Pedro Almodóvar, suggesting that Mariana might really have been having fun (she appears in the film as a nun)?
The screening of Tots volem el millor per a ella was preceded by a 10 minute short, Somos Amigos (We Are Friends, Spain 2014). This classy widescreen effort hones in on the current period of austerity with a wry tale about ‘downsizing’ and the imperative to never mix ‘friendship and business’. The director Carlos Solano is listed in the HOME brochure as a former student of Mar Coll. I presume this was at ESCAC (Escuela Superior de Cine y Audiovisuales de Cataluña), part of the University of Barcelona.
Researching Tots volem el millor per a ella, I discovered that it had already shown in the UK at the ICA as part of the ‘Catalan avant-garde season” – though it isn’t really an avant-garde film – and in Birmingham as part of a season of Catalan, Basque and Galician films. It would be good if it got a wider UK release.
Trailer (in Catalan with Castillian subs – please correct me if I’m mistaken):
Suffragette is doing OK in UK cinemas. In my local cinema it was in the smaller screen with the Bond movie downstairs in the larger screen but there was still a healthy audience and I lost my preferred seat. My impression is that UK critics have been kinder to the film than those in North America (some of which have been very strange – though as Meryl Streep pointed out at the LFF Press Conference, many Americans won’t know what the title means). A note of caution however, the film was given a saturation release on over 500 screens and it fell 56% in its second week, suggesting that it might not have the ‘legs’ for a long run. The figures for the third weekend will be interesting. Suffragette has already made £5.8 million in the UK so does the box office trend mean much?
The positive about Suffragette is that audiences have the opportunity to see it all over the UK (and Ireland). For younger audiences it may prove to be an important history lesson at a time when there appears to be a feminist revival but the dreadful state of the UK school curriculum means that rates of political literacy are low and the events leading up to partial suffrage for women in the UK in 1918 are not necessarily widely known. The film has been well-promoted and overall it delivers. The central idea of constructing the narrative around the gradual consciousness-raising and politicisation of a single working-class character in an East London works well. Carey Mulligan as Maud is totally convincing. It’s great to have seen her in two British films this year and she is now perhaps the leading star actor of her generation in the UK. It’s also good to see all the creative opportunities for the likes of writer Abi Morgan, director Sarah Gavron and the many women in the crew as well as Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham-Carter and Natalie Press as fellow activists.
I’ve not heard too many people say that they ‘enjoyed’ Suffragette, although several have said how impressive it is, how worthwhile, even how inspiring. I did find it impressive up to the final act that we knew was coming – Emily Davidson’s fatal attempt to catch hold of the King’s horse in the Epsom Derby of 1913. Whereas the earlier scenes seemed manageable in terms of the film’s chosen aesthetic – a muted palette of greys and blues for Eduard Grau’s camera and relatively tight framing of small scenes of action – Epsom in summer sun and the toffs in colourful clothes didn’t seem to work. It felt as though the budget couldn’t stretch to a full-scale crowded racetrack and I wondered if something more abstract might not have worked better – a slow motion sequence perhaps. Afterwards I wondered whether a different event such as the slashing of the Rokeby Venus painting in 1914 might not have been a better bet as a climactic event. As it is the funeral of Emily Davidson is represented by carefully presented ‘topical’ footage reframed from archive material. Maud is a fictional creation so it doesn’t matter what she witnessed. The other characters are mainly either ‘historical’ or based on historical characters.
I’m surprised that Meryl Streep allowed her image to be used so blatantly in the film’s promotion. She plays Emmeline Pankhurst but has only a few minutes of screen time. There are many other actors who could have performed the role and who would not have been displayed on the poster, displacing Anne-Marie Duff. The point here is that this is not a film about the middle-class suffragettes but about the foot soldiers of the movement (see Sarah Gavron’s statements in the clip below). I hope that there will be discussions about which stories appear in the film. I’ve seen North American reviews that claim that the film focuses on the middle-class activists and that this is a kind of ‘heritage film’ – but neither charge is justified. Politically, one of the most interesting aspects of the script is the links that are made to Irish independence struggles (in which women also played important roles). I’m not sure about the surveillance cameras that are used in the film (presumably this was researched?) but the presence of Brendan Gleeson as an Irish police Inspector who utilises the same methods in investigating suffragette activity as he had previously used with ‘Fenian’ activists seems an astute point. I hope that audiences make the connections between the ways in which the British state historically treated suffragettes and Irish republicans. The British state seemed to learn nothing from the treatment of hunger strikers in 1913 when it came to the treatment of internees such as Bobby Sands in 1981.
Of all the reviews I’ve seen, the best is by Graham Fuller on theartsdesk.com. I realise that we independently came to similar conclusions but he expresses them more eloquently – though he also describes the plot in some detail, so beware. The Film 4 featurette below is an excellent resource with Sarah Gavron, Abi Morgan and Anne-Marie Duff and clips from the film. I’m still staggered by the lack of historical knowledge shown by these three (and Carey Mulligan in other interviews) before they started work on the project. I’m sure this was on our school syllabuses in the 1960s, but perhaps I read it all somewhere else? What I certainly didn’t know was that the police surveillance files of the period became available to the public in 2002. But really we shouldn’t be surprised by what the state would do to confront any form of democratic challenge. This is an important film that everyone should see.
I approached this screening with some trepidation. I’d chosen it because it fitted my schedule. I’m always slightly wary of documentaries and I’m not sure why. I rarely choose to see documentaries at my local cinemas but when I do get to see them I nearly always find them rewarding. This one certainly sounded grim and when I arrived at the ICA (which didn’t have seat reservations for this screening) I found myself sitting behind the tallest person in the cinema. With poor raking in the cinema this meant I had to lean sideways to read the subtitles. It wasn’t a good start but I needn’t have worried.
People live and work on or near to rubbish tips all over the world and I can think of both cinema documentaries and fiction films set in Brazil, Egypt and India in which potentially positive stories can be found about their lives. I wasn’t aware of the same scale of living with rubbish in Moscow. Rummaging about in Cairo or Mumbai sounds relatively attractive in comparison to surviving a Russian winter in a makeshift hut on a waste tip in the snow and slush. But apparently this is what hundreds, if not thousands, of people do every year. The film’s title comes from a quote from Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths (1902), a play depicting ‘Scenes From Russian Life’ amongst the poorest classes. Hanna Polak’s film focuses on one young woman and offers us glimpses of her life over a 14 year period, starting when she was 10.
Hanna Polak is a celebrated Polish documentarist and a humanitarian campaigner. Reading her biographical details, her list of films and awards over the last fifteen years and the range of her work with charitable organisations, I’m surprised (and perhaps shamed) that I haven’t come across her before. After the screening she gave a spirited account of how she made her latest film and used the opportunity to encourage us all to promote the film and the various campaigns around it. In short, Hanna Polak embodies what was once called ‘social documentary’. Her films are meant to not only show the world but definitely to change it. In Putin’s Russia that’s a tough call.
The genesis of the film was a project that Polak began in order to try to help street children in Moscow. It was they who introduced her to the communities on the dumps. For a long period she worked to help children with medical problems, getting them access to treatment. She always carried a camera and took both still photographs and film footage but most of the time she was too busy to do this systematically. It was only later that somebody suggested that she make a film and that she realised that she might be able to do more for the people on the dumps if a film showed what was happening to a much wider audience. The decision to make the young woman Yula, the central character in the story was in effect retrospective and we see glimpses of her as a child before we get more sustained coverage of incidents from her later teenage years onwards. Across the 14 years, Hanna Polak had other films to make as director, producer and cinematographer including Children of the Leningradsky (2004) about street children living around a Moscow railway station. She made other social documentaries as well as, presumably, jobs to simply pay the bills. She graduated from a cinematography school in Moscow so she had contacts in the city but she had to look elsewhere for funding. Something Better to Come is co-produced by Polish and Danish/Nordic public funding (an example of Scandinavian support for charitable/aid-related work?).
The difficulties of making this film – physical, organisational, personal etc. – mean that it doesn’t offer many ‘aesthetic pleasures’ but it packs a powerful punch as a social statement. Yula herself is a remarkable young woman and Hanna Polak amused us by revealing that the 23 year-old Yula is now living a carefully organised life in Moscow which allows the filmmaker limited interview time. “You get one hour, then I must do something else.” Yula’s family lost their original apartment in Moscow and ended up homeless and eventually on the dump. Years later, almost like a miracle in a fairy tale, the Moscow authorities discovered that the family had property rights that were still valid and Yula got an apartment. In the meantime her father, like many others, had died. Life on the dump is hard. A temporary shelter may need to be moved every few days as the only work available is searching through the new rubbish for recycleable material and it’s important to be close by. The trucks and bulldozers move the mountains of rubbish and the ‘recyclers’ are paid in vodka for what they find. Alcoholism sits along hyperthermia in winter and various diseases associated with dirty water and contaminated food as major killers. The recycling is an illegal operation controlled by gangsters. Hanna Polak faced dangers working with the people of the dump and finding money to complete her film was a problem. Now she spends her time trying to find ways to promote her film. If a screening happens near you, please go to see it and support her cause.
Trailer for Something Better to Come:
Thirst opens with a long shot of a road snaking its way up a hill towards the camera position. The credits appear to the left of the ‘Scope frame and in the distance a figure is running up the road towards us. I was immediately struck by resemblances to other films such as Zvyagintsev’s The Banishment or Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Uzak which start in similar ways.
The running figure is a teenage boy who it later turns out has to run 4,000 steps each day to prevent the heart attacks suffered by his father who monitors the lad’s progress from his position up a tree (where he sneaks a crafty fag). When the boy stops he spots a young woman and an old man by the side of their truck. The fifth principal character is the boy’s mother who has moved into her father’s old house at the top of another hill. She earns the family’s money by washing the bed linen from hotels (presumably in the valley below). Each day a driver delivers soiled sheets and collects the washed and ironed replacements. The only problem is that there is a drought and each day the water supply is disrupted, making the washing business increasingly difficult to manage. But the girl and the old man are a water drilling outfit. She divines where the water is and he organises the drilling. Problem solved – or is it?
There is certainly a strong indication that this is an ‘elemental story’ with possible ecology issues as well as metaphorical meanings. Asked about ecological questions, the debutant director Svetla Tsotsorkova replied that she hadn’t thought too much about them. The story was actually inspired by her own family memories – her grandmother had washed sheets for hotels. Another question in the post-screening discussion was: “How does this film relate to Bulgarian cinema more generally?” Tsotsorkova replied that perhaps it did resemble films made in Bulgaria during the 1960s and into the 1980s. It has a timeless feel with little dialogue and unnamed characters. The two younger characters are played by non-actors and the older characters by veterans of Bulgarian cinema. Working with a much older male screenwriter, Tsotsorkova gradually refined the script and the film as screened runs 90 minutes.
The family on the hill has a settled but restricted life before the arrival of the father-daughter water drillers. They have different ‘thirsts’ for all kinds of things besides water to wash the sheets and their ‘Eden’ is eventually destroyed when they seek to quench those thirsts. The girl in particular is a fascinating character and her back story works well with an excellent performance to suggest an ancient story of disruption of the family unit. The LFF audience clearly enjoyed the film which works wonderfully as an aesthetic experience as well as a gripping tale. It’s a remarkable début film that will stay with me for a long time. Reading various interviews with the director after the screening I was intrigued to see that she name-checked Andrea Arnold as a filmmaker she admires and thinking about the connection I can see that though the films are very different, Arnold’s work on something like Wuthering Heights does share the same sense of people and places.
I hope this gets UK distribution. Properly handled there will be an audience for a film of this quality and I’d like to watch it again.