The International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA) is offering the opportunity to watch films online with some free and others charging a fee. There are 450 free short documentaries and I chose three titles all produced by students at the International Film School in Cuba, an important institution founded by Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Cuban filmmakers Julio Garcia Espinosa and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and the Argentinian filmmaker Fernando Birri in December 1986. The school was set up to provide education and training for primarily Latin American filmmakers and it has received support from filmmakers around the world. It is best known as ‘Escuela Internacional de Cine y Television’ or EICTV.
The three films I chose were all submitted to IDFA’s student competition. I was first attracted to two films dealing with aspects of Cuban Railways. I hadn’t realised that Cuba saw some of the first steam railways in the world (before Spain) and that although the system has suffered because of the US blockade and the end of aid from the USSR, there has been a revival recently with new stock from China and Iran and older equipment from other countries maintaining diplomatic relations with Cuba.
The Load (La Carga, 2015, 25 mins), dir Victor Alexis Guerrero, is less about the railway itself and more about the men who work on it. We open somewhere on a single track railway through fields with grass that nearly grows over the tracks. It’s night and there appear to be several men in a freight car. At first I was confused by this. I knew there wouldn’t be illegal riders on the train, but I remembered that many Cubans have had to travel in communal trucks, either because they can’t afford long distance buses or services have not been available. One of the men in the freight car is trying to get a light to work with bare wires and a piece of card. Eventually he manages it and we can see that in total there are seven men on the train and they are all crew. They live in a wagon with bunks and a cooking range. One of them is the driver and the others are presumably there to help load and unload the train of wagons. They are based at a railhead in Matanzas, the port city some 55 miles east of Havana. Cuban Railways clearly has some problems and the men find themselves waiting around for a new load. We have already seen their difficulty in moving their open wagons. At one point with the train slipping on the rails, the men are out putting sand on the rails to try to achieve better adhesion.But mostly the men engage in familiar forms of banter including tales about women. Eventually a new load is found for the train and they trundle away with a load of aggregate for building work. It’s nice to just spend a few minutes with a group of working men, bitching about their jobs, just like workers anywhere.
Inertia (All Pantographs Go to Heaven, 2008, 15 mins), dir Armando Capó Ramos, is also about railways but it is a very different kind of film. Its subject is the ‘Hershey Railway’. This railway between Havana and Matanzas is the only electric line surviving in Cuba, all the other motive power is diesel. It was built originally by the US chocolate giant Hershey in circa 1916 to transport sugar to Havana from its mill in the town of Hershey (now Camilo Cienfeugos). Several branch lines were also constructed to enable workers to get to the mill. Some of these are now closed, along with the mill, but tourist traffic keeps the system open. This short film reminds me of some of the Cuban revolutionary/avant garde shorts of the 1960s. There isn’t much in the way of political comment, except for a sequence in which I’m guessing that a group of local passengers look rather bored and disapproving when a musical group boards the train and performs a conga down the aisle, presumably with some tourists joining in. Earlier we have been offered a montage of close-ups of faces and objects and an aerial/overhead shot of the train shed (possibly the camera was running along a rail suspend from the ceiling?). As well as montage, the filmmaker also uses reverse projection, so the same car moves swiftly out of the shed and then back. In the final third of the film, the camera remains static as the train stops and we watch the passengers walking away down the track and gradually out of focus. This last shot lasts 5 minutes and does prove oddly fascinating.
The ideas explored here about how to represent the railway and its passengers are interesting but I’m not sure that they are fully integrated. I would guess that the filmmaker hasn’t got the experience needed to assess the completed film and then go back and re-edit. On the other hand, why should the documentary prioritise ‘coherence’? I was intrigued by the film and I did get a sense of what the railway was like. Perhaps that’s enough?
Iceberg (2015, 26 mins), dir Juliana Gabriela Gomez Castañeda, seemed to me the most successful of the three films. It is a film about loneliness which manages to compress a maternal family melodrama into its 26 minutes. Although the central character reveals her pain in two short sequences, we also see that she lives in a small community that appears to be supportive. I’m guessing that this is the meaning of the title. Like an iceberg, Teresa appears on the surface to be happy in her community, but underneath she is pining for contact with her daughter and with her mother in the cemetery.
Teresa lives in a small community on the coast close to Puerto Santiago de Cuba. She is not completely alone because her dog Diana seems to accompany her everywhere. Most days Teresa, who is in her 60s, goes fishing. She has two floats linked together by chains which she places in the water, and then sits back in the water with one float under legs and the other beneath her upper torso creating a star shape. Diana jumps up between her legs and stands on the float and Teresa uses her arms to gently paddle out into the bay. Occasionally she catches a small fish. It’s not an efficient way to fish but it doesn’t cost anything and it’s a nice way to spend the day. In the first part of the film, María, her granddaughter is staying with her, but soon she has to go back to boarding school by ferry. Teresa’s social life revolves around the church and a drink with friends in the evening when she sings. But she is most expressive in her phone call to her daughter in another city who hasn’t seen María for some time. The film is beautifully shot in a ‘Scope ratio and like the first film, shows the ordinary lives of Cubans.
Cuban cinema was the leader of Latin American cinema in the 1960s and it is good to see that the International Film School is still training new talents, especially in documentary. Perhaps if Trump loses in November, the Cuban industry might benefit from any lifting of the US blockade? I certainly hope so.
My final film in this year’s Cheltenham International Film Festival (still available online here) was proably the best; vying with Antigone and Rounds for the accolade. Narratively it’s a conventional ‘coming of age’ story however as it’s set on an Innu reservation in Quebec, the cultural difference is sufficient to make it stand out. Add to that the marvellous central performance of Sharon Fontaine Ishpatao as Mikuan and Myriam Verreault’s confident direction, we get a cracking film. The film’s based on Naomi Fontaine’s impressionistic novel and the ethnically white Verreault ensured that she would be sensitive in adapting the novel through getting to know the Innu community as well as recruiting Fontaine as co-writer.
I’m guessing that the narrative is autobiographical, in general if not in the detail. Orla Smith, at the start of her interview with Fontaine and Verreault, states:
Kuessipan is an Innu word meaning, “It’s your turn.” That sentiment inspired Noami Fontaine’s novel of the same name: living in Quebec, away from the Innu community she was born in, she was confused by white people’s notions that Indigenous Canadians were this strange ‘other’. Fontaine decided it was the Innu people’s turn to tell their own story, and so she wrote Kuessipan.
This Othering of difference that reduces the diversity of a cultural group into a homogenous, and often misunderstood, blob is, of course, a huge problem. One of the functions of art is to get us to understand others and the film does that superbly with its ‘warts and all’ portrayal of thepoverty-stricken reservation life. Ishpatao portrays the vulnerability and strength of her character who is pushing against the limitations of roots and against the way she is seen by white people; she’s in a limbo and so it seems, at times, that she belongs nowhere. Mikuan has a tough time personally, with added melodramatic family tragedies, but has the inner strength needed to combat adversity.
Verreault, in her feature film debut, brilliantly integrates actors and non-actors and so the film’s authenticity comes from more than the location shooting. When Mikuan joins a school writing group it feels the scene has been created through improv so convincing is the interaction; and her poetry is great.
An interview with the lead actors, Ishpatao and Yamie Grégoire who plays Shaniss Mikuan’s ‘friend for life’, states there is more indigenous filmmaking happening in the area and it would be great if we could get more of it on the festival circuit. Particularly if they’re as good as this.
Based on Sophocles’ play, writer-director Sophie Deraspe has made a vital, ambitious film for today: the issue of protest, which is one of the film’s manifold threads, is especially vital at the moment and long may that continue. Nahéma Ricci, in a stand-out performance, plays the titular character who is a ‘good girl’ immigrant in Quebec whose brother gets into trouble with police because of his gang affiliations. As in the Greek play, Antigone puts herself in a position to sacrifice her future for her brother and, more widely, her family. If occasionally the film over-stretches credulity that matters little when the narrative has such ambition. Some of the subjects it tries to deal with are: social media campaigning; poorly trained youth offender staff; recalcitrant courts; politicians; citizenship rules and so on. Even if Deraspe bites off more than a film can chew readily it is an exhilarating watch.
By ‘good girl’ I mean Antigone is a model student who is determined to do well and she is an academic star. In a scene early in the film she makes a class presentation about how she arrived in Canada. At first the students are disinterested however when they wake up to the fact they are hearing about childhood trauma they, like the audience, are riveted by Antigone’s performance. The scene is typical of a superbly directed film that allows the audience’s understanding to grow as the action progresses and, right at its end, we see the teacher moving forward as she realises the trauma of what Antigone has said.
The film has the trajectory of a ‘youth picture’ except where, usually, the ‘growing up’ is done through sexual awakening, here it is Antigone’s growing realisation of the politics of being an immigrant. She starts as a ‘naive’ youth who believes that truth will lead to justice and learns a tough lesson and leaves us with an ambiguous ending.
On a negative note, the montage sequences illustrating how social media responded to Antigone’s campaign jar slightly with the aesthetics of the film. The habit most people have of using phones in ‘portrait’ position, thus severely restricting what can be seen, allows three phone screens to be shown across the film frame, with a hip hop soundtrack. Whilst this is meant to indicate the impact of her campaign it doesn’t work as it’s only Antigone’s boyfriend who we see involved in getting her message across. It’s a minor criticism for, as I’ve said, you can’t downgrade a film for ambition.
Ricci is superb at conveying the intensity of someone who has not yet been downtrodden by the system, unlike many of her fellow inmates whose rebellion consists of shouting and swearing. Deraspe even gets Tiresias into a particularly chilling scene. The film won best Canadian feature at the Toronto film festival and was Canada’s foreign language entry for the Oscars and it’s definitely one to catch at Cheltenham here.
‘We Are One: A Global Film Festival’ last week offered a wide range of films ‘donated’ by various well-known international festivals, but they were only available for a few days. I headed straight for Mabo as a film which, although I knew nothing about it, seemed like a ‘must watch’. I have recently been introduced to various Australian films by the BBC4 screening of David Stratton’s 3-part series on Australian cinema. The series is on iPlayer for the next 11 months. I discovered major directors who were new to me and films that have had very little exposure in the UK. Perhaps the most important gap in my knowledge concerns Rachel Perkins and her production company Blackfella Films. Perkins founded Blackfella Films in 1992 and has since been joined by other filmmakers in making a range of feature films and documentaries for both cinema and TV.
Blackfella Films has been responsible for bringing Indigenous Australian stories to a wider audience both in Australia and internationally. I’m not sure how I missed the importance of this company. I realise now that at least one of Blackfella’s TV series, Deep Water (Australia 2016) has been on BBC4 in the UK. More surprising perhaps is that Perkins’ own films haven’t had a higher profile in the UK. Indigenous stories have mostly arrived in the UK via film festivals and occasional arthouse releases. Mabo is described as a ‘television movie’, aimed at a mass audience in Australia and telling the story of Koiki Eddie Mabo (played by Jimi Bani) as the Torres Strait Islander who became the central figure in a court case which overturned the legal precedent of terra nullius – ‘nobody’s land’. The Torres Strait Islands had been claimed by European ‘explorers’ in the late 18th century and subsumed into the British colonial territory of Australia since they were not constituted as a national state. This meant that Indigenous people who may have occupied their lands for hundreds of years before white settlement could not obtain rights for their own land under Anglo-Australian law. Similar issues arise in other countries that have been colonised and ‘settled’.
Mabo is a film that has an engaging narrative and two great central performances and it tells a story that everyone should know. It isn’t without its flaws but I think these are mainly concerned with the problem of juggling three central narrative strands with different generic elements. First, this is a form of biopic of Koiki Eddie Mabo, following his development as a young man forced by circumstance to leave Mer/Murray Island in the 1950s and look for work in Queensland. He works on trochus boats (molluscs harvested for ‘mother of pearl’), track-laying on the railway and eventually as a gardener at a library. Here he begins investigating the history of the islands and meets two white characters who become interested in his story and together the trio formulate a local campaign which will eventually lead to a final legal victory 25 years later. As a young man Koiki meets Bonita, who he marries. Together they have children and Bonita works to support the campaign, but the marriage has many strains and pressures. Deborah Mailman who plays Bonita is one of the best known Indigenous performers in Australia on stage and in film and television. I remember her role in The Sapphires (Australia 2012). The struggles in the marriage form a second strand which perhaps should have developed into a family melodrama if there had been more time to focus on the children (the couple had ten in all). The third strand is the campaign itself and this did cause me some problems. I think legal dramas focusing on the courtroom are difficult to condense into easily accessed narratives. I lost my way in some of the debates about the traditions concerning family life and land rights in the islands, which were complicated by Koiki’s adoption at an early age by a different family member.
The legal case required hearings in both the Queensland courts and the High Court in Canberra. For an outsider, the process appears to follow generic lines in that a ‘good result’ is more likely to be achieved at national/federal level rather than locally. Koiki had several problems as a young man in Queensland, including paternalistic but highly exploitative relationships with white employers, direct racism in the form of a colour bar (operating much as it did in the UK in the 1950s and in many British colonial territories) and further isolation as a Torres Strait Islander because he didn’t share language, culture or history with the indigenous peoples of Northern Queensland. Bonita Mabo was herself from a bi-racial background with ancestors who were coerced in a form of indentured labour from the Vanuatu group of islands to work in the Queensland sugar cane fields.
Because this film was a ‘telemovie’ it hasn’t been reviewed in the same way as international cinema features. IMDb carries only a World Socialist Website piece which has some good points to make but is very negative about the political importance of the film. Scanning reviews available from Australian media sites, it is apparent that the film was a political football at the time. The Australian, a Murdoch News Corp right-wing paper, claimed the broadcast was a ratings flop. It hides behind pay-walls like Murdoch’s UK broadsheet so I don’t know what this claim means. Other reports are more welcoming and more appreciative. Viewing the film and its context from a UK perspective is difficult because of lack of sufficient knowledge of Australian politics. I do remember the reputation of Queensland politics and racism back in the 1980s but I don’t know enough to follow all the arguments. Mabo is a ‘well-made’ mainstream TV movie. The script by Sue Smith, direction by Rachel Perkins and outstanding central performances by the two leads create a very watchable film that tells an important story. I haven’t mentioned the relatively starry cast of white actors who portray the lawyers and some of the employers and political figures but they also contribute to the quality of the storytelling. On the weekend when #BlackLivesMatter activists in the UK dumped a statue of a notorious British slave trader into the Bristol dock it was sobering to learn more about the history of racist exploitation in Australia.
I can’t find Mabo on any UK streaming sites but Amazon UK are selling a Region 4 Australian DVD. There is also a film called Mabo – Life of an Island Man which I haven’t seen, but this is unavailable on Amazon. The Blackfella Films website lists other film titles made by Rachel Perkins’ company.
All three of us currently contributing to this blog have written about Ingmar Bergman’s films. I think Keith would be happy to accept the position of fan. But I and possibly Nick are more wary. I admire the skills of his filmmaking and I like some of the early films, but I struggle to enjoy the later films I’ve seen. Margarethe von Trotta, however, is a filmmaker I certainly admire and I’ve found all her films interesting. This is her documentary and therefore I approached it with some trepidation, knowing that she was a Bergman fan too.
The film opens with von Trotta on the beach where Bergman shot The Seventh Seal (1957) as she takes us through her first experience of watching his films and then moves to Paris as she tells us how in 1960 she intended to study at the Sorbonne. She then admits that, after meeting some young French cinéphiles, she spent much of her time in cinemas catching up on la nouvelle vague and, through the young directors like Truffaut, discovering Bergman. We realise that this will be a ‘personal journey’ type of documentary and what follows sees the German director discussing Bergman with other directors, several of his female actors and then several members of his family as she visits Bergman’s home on Fårö, the small island in the Baltic where he spent most of his later life. As several reviewers have pointed out, this is a performative documentary – Margarethe von Trotta appears in the film herself and we see her interacting with her interviewees. What could have been a dull series of talking heads interspersed with clips from the films becomes something more personal and engaging. It’s good to see von Trotta talking with, for instance, Liv Ullman. Here are two successful female filmmakers, both of whom have been actors as well as directors, talking about a man who seemed to have the ability to find strong, beautiful and intelligent women (and skilled actors) to be the leads in his films – something eloquently confirmed by the Spanish director Carlos Saura. Bergman was also a man who married five times and seemingly left his wives after they gave birth, unable to engage in any way with his young children.
We do meet Daniel Bergman, one of Bergman’s sons who had a difficult time in later life working with his father on Sunday’s Children (1992), a film written by Ingmar and directed by Daniel and drawing on memories of Ingmar’s father, the cleric Erik Bergman. Von Trotta also shows us a photograph of the whole Bergman clan, over three generations, taken when they travelled to Fårö. On this occasion several of the eight Bergman children met each other for the first time. The documentary does also begin to explore Ingmar’s deep psychological problems with his father and his own need to endlessly explore his childhood rather than engage with his children. This is just one example of how the documentary doesn’t ignore Bergman’s darker side but this isn’t enough to appease some of the film’s reviewers and several see von Trotta as creating a hagiography. She is a fan and she shows us Bergman’s list of films he selected for a publication related to the 1994 Göteborg Film Festival. It reveals that von Trotta’s own film The German Sisters (1981) is the only film in the list directed by a woman and the only one by a filmmaker who is still alive.
I’m not sure that it is fair to describe the film as a ‘hagiography’. Von Trotta does interview two of Bergman’s prominent contemporary disciples in the shape of the French directors Olivier Assayas and Mia Hansen-Løve. The latter made a visit to Fårö to make a (fiction) film which appears to be still to be released. However, another director of a ‘post-Bergman generation’, Ruben Östlund, points to the split in Swedish film culture that came about in the 1960s. Östlund explains that he was trained at the Göteborg film school where there has been more of an influence of the younger directors from the 1960s, led by Bo Widerberg, whereas in Stockholm there is still the sense that Bergman is the important figure. This view, which I confess I have long held, preferring Widerberg to Bergman, is confirmed by the writer, director and critic Stig Björkman who explains that in the 1960s Bergman began to feel threatened by the rise of a new generation. To be fair to Bergman though, he did include one of Widerberg’s films in that 1994 list.
I think Margarethe von Trotta could have delved a little deeper into some of Bergman’s darker places and it’s unfortunate that she doesn’t/couldn’t interview some of Bergman’s male actors. Many of them are no longer with us. Perhaps my major disappointment with the film is that it fails to fulfil the blurb in the sense that although Margarethe von Trotta does probe a little about Bergman’s childhood, she doesn’t attempt to say anything about Bergman’s early work. He had made 16 feature films between 1946 and 1956 when he started on The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. Apart from Summer with Monika (1953), which was a big influence on Truffaut and Godard, there is no mention of the early career in film – or theatre. It is the early films that I have enjoyed most. There is a clue as to why the early films are excluded. What does emerge from the documentary is that above all, Bergman saw himself as a writer. In those early films he was often constrained by working on somebody else’s original material. Von Trotta’s film does feel like a gathering of auteurs. It is an entertaining gathering and I was most impressed by the directors fluency in discussing the life and work of Bergman in French, German and English and at least I now know how to pronounce properly a range of names and titles in German and Swedish. In summary, this is a film that will interest Bergman’s fans and anyone interested in the history of European cinephilia. But if you don’t know Bergman that well it might not be the best place to start? On the other hand, it is a well-made documentary and Margarethe von Trotta is an engaging guide.
This is the début feature of writer-director Ena Sendijarevic, a Bosnian filmmaker based in Amsterdam. The film has had a successful festival run around the world, garnering prize nominations, including wins in its two ‘home’ festivals of Rotterdam and Sarajevo. It’s a road movie and ‘coming of age’ drama that includes many familiar elements but presents them in fresh and ‘refreshing’ ways. Several reviews have referred to Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (US 1984) because of its low budget and three characters on a trip to the sea, each of whom are ‘finding themselves’. I haven’t seen the Jarmusch since its first UK screening in 1984 so I was more taken by similarities to two other similar road movies, Alfonso Cuaron’s Y tu mamá también (Mexico 2001) and Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar (UK 2002). I mention all three films simply to make the point that they each make use of familiar elements but in very different ways and in different settings.
Ena Sendijarevic elects to use a 1.33:1 ratio image in colour – and the bright pastel colours are part of the film’s visual appeal. Cinematography by Emo Weemhoff, who also shot Ms Sendijarevic’s successful short Import (2016), is striking in its manipulation of space and use of angles. It is at times also lyrical in presenting summer in Bosnia. The plot is relatively simple in outline. Alma is a young woman living with her mother in the Netherlands and together they have decided that she should visit Bosnia for a holiday and also try to visit her father who is sick in a hospital. We get the impression that Alma has grown up in the Netherlands and may never have known her father or only has vague memories from early childhood. We don’t learn Alma’s age but she could be anywhere between 18 and 23. In the opening scene she is with her mother trying to decide between two summer dresses to take on her trip. There will be several other images and actions that represent her sense of having two identities and her difficulty in deciding how to reconcile the two.
In Bosnia she is expecting to stay with her cousin Emir who has a flat in a tower block. He turns out to be unemployed but somehow always busy with schemes and seemingly reluctant to help Alma. Fortunately he has a sidekick (an ‘intern’ as the subtitles put it) called Denis who is more friendly. Even so, Alma decides to try to find her father in hospital, travelling across country by bus. Alma experiences several setbacks which she overcomes with remarkable calmness. She is an attractive young woman but ‘down to earth’ – sensible and playful in equal measure. Eventually the two young men catch up with her and the trio continue their journey. Alma’s twin identities are reflected in the different dreams of the Emir and Denis. Emir is proud to be Bosnian, Denis wants to get away. The crucial thing about the film for many reviewers seems to be that the film isn’t typical of Balkan films that are about the aftermath of war, the yearning for migration or indeed ‘dark’ drama of any kind. (The names Emir and Denis mirror the Muslim/Christian balance in the population but this isn’t an issue.) Instead the film focuses on the personal stories of its three young characters who have universal concerns. There are dark moments, especially towards the end when they finally get to the sea, but there are also fun times and I’m not going to spoil the adventures of the three. Later, I read an interview by the director stating clearly that she wanted to avoid the ‘social-realist’ image of a ‘victimised’ Bosnia. She succeeds in this and she says her next picture will be:
. . . about the feminine side of the colonial oppression of Indonesia by the Dutch – the female experience, so to say. It will be quite a surreal, fantastical, absurdist horror comedy. [Laughs.]
The film’s music by Ella van der Woude won a festival prize and there are diegetic tracks of local popular music. I’m too old to be able to comment on this but I enjoyed the film, which at 91 minutes seems about the right length. The three young leads are all good as quite different characters, but it’s really Sara Luna Zoric as Alma who ‘owns’ the film. I imagine that she got on well with her young director and the whole film seems to have gone down well with younger audiences in both Amsterdam and Sarajevo. It’s an encouraging début film and well worth looking up on MUBI where it will be available for the next three weeks.