Category: Melodrama

Return from the Ashes (UK-US 1965)

‘Stan’ (Maximilian Schell) and Michele (Ingrid Thulin) play speed chess when they first meet

I’ve waited several years to see this, having learned about it as the first adaptation of the novel by Hubert Monteilhet (Le retour des cendres) that formed the raw material for Christian Petzold’s Phoenix (Germany 2014). It’s a very different film from Phoenix, but representative of its production context. The film is set primarily in Paris but shot at the MGM-British studio at Boreham Wood. I’m not sure if there were any B-unit shots in Paris, or stock footage. It is presented as a very beautiful B+W ‘scope print with Christopher Challis as DoP.

Charles (Herbert Lom) comforts Michele when she first returns to Paris from the camp

The basic plot offers us Michele Wolff (Ingrid Thulin) who we meet first in late 1945, arriving in Paris by train. She has been in a Nazi concentration camp and has made it back to Paris after a period of recuperation in a German sanatorium. Flashbacks reveal that in 1940 she was a wealthy widow working as a doctor in Paris and with a stepdaughter Fabienne (Samantha Eggar) in boarding school in England. Michelle had taken a younger lover, a Polish chess champion, Stanislas Pilgrin (Maximilian Schell) and the couple were married immediately before she was seized by the Nazis as a Jewish woman. The only other principal character is Dr Charles Bovard (Herbert Lom), Michele’s colleague at the clinic.

When Michelle returns she is unrecognisable after the ravages of the camp but Bovard organises plastic surgery and the main narrative development in the story is that Stanislas does not recognise her, even though she gets back close to how she looked before. He believes the woman he married is dead but hatches a plan to steal her wealth which French law has frozen until death is confirmed or Michele is found alive. The remainder of the narrative becomes a mystery thriller involving the four principals.

Stan with Fabienne (Samantha Eggar)

The film belongs to the broader 1960s phenomenon of Hollywood films made in Europe. It was made by the Mirisch Corporation for United Artists and the novel was adapted by the celebrated Hollywood writer Jules Epstein. But the production was essentially British with John Dankworth as music director joining Challis, by this time one of the leading British cinematographers (including the later films of ‘The Archers’ (Powell and Pressburger), and British heads of department throughout the rest of the creative team. Samantha Eggar was at this point the rising young star of British cinema, having made The Collector with Terence Stamp for William Wyler in the same year. Herbert Lom was established as a fine star actor in the UK, having arrived as a Czech migrant in 1939. Many of the supporting cast were originally French but domiciled in the UK whereas Ingrid Thulin and Maximilian Schell were at this point known across Europe. Thulin, one of Bergman’s company in Sweden in the 1950s, appeared in French, German and Italian films as well as going back to Sweden. Schell was seen as the major German actor of his generation who worked in the UK or the US as well as Germany. Overall the cast of Return from the Ashes do manage to convey a Parisian sensibility, even though they are working in English. This is in contrast to the hairstyles and costumes in the film which, following Hollywood conventions, are faithful to the 1960s more than the 1940s. (Whereas Phoenix makes a good stab at conjuring up the Berlin of 1945-6.)

Stan and Michele when they first meet again after her return

The producer-director of the film is J. Lee Thompson, a surprisingly prolific director for one who came to directing later than most. Born in 1914 he started to write plays as a teenager  and gradually through the late 1930s his scripts were used for stage plays and some films.He continued as a writer up to the time of his war service and briefly afterwards until he got the chance to direct his own work in 1950. His second film,The Yellow Balloon proved to be his breakthrough work and throughout the 1950s he was a prominent director in the UK with several hits which were also critical successes. He gradually moved into larger scale films with international stories and actors and had a huge international success with The Guns of Navarone (UK-US 1961). Several other Hollywood successes followed but by the 1970s he was still making films but most of them were not up to the standard of his 1950s British films. Thompson was a Bristolian and it looks now as if the Bristol-based ‘Rediscovering Cinema Film Festival’ based at Watershed in the city is getting interested in exploring Thompson as a filmmaker. I think Return from the Ashes is a worthwhile film. The source novel has an unusual story which in this adaptation is played with the kind of climactic sequence which prompted the distributors to copy Hitchcock and beg audiences not to give away the ending. The effectiveness of the narrative depends on the camerawork by Challis and the strong performances of the four principals. I find it difficult to describe the intensity of the performances but Thulin and Schell are dynamic. Lom provides the strong and steady background and Eggar provides the beauty, the petulance and the nastiness that the part demands.

The HD print I found online is currently available on the best known video-sharing site and I’m grateful to the person who uploaded it. I don’t think I’m likely to find the second adaptation in 1982 which was made for French TV with the title Le retour d’Elisabeth Wolff (the Michele character).

A Woman’s Secret (US 1949)

Sometimes films get a bad press and, even during the Studio Hollywood period, they fail at the box office and their directors disown them. But that doesn’t mean they are of no interest or that they can’t offer entertainment and enjoyment to some audiences today. A Woman’s Secret is one such film It has several celebrated names attached to it but it has been generally ‘bad-mouthed’. It was the second film to be directed under contract at RKO by Nicholas Ray and its problematic status is perhaps indicated by the fact that it was released after his third film. He himself tried not to be the director but was seemingly tricked into accepting the commission. He later disowned the film, but he did meet Gloria Grahame, the third-billed rising star at the studio. He was impressed with her and married her before the film came out. (The marriage was good gossip fodder and didn’t last long, but that’s another story).

Gloria Grahame as Susan in a classic mirror composition

The film was adapted from a story (a magazine serial and then a novel, Mortgage for Life) by Vicki Baum, a prolific Austrian novelist whose works were adapted in Germany and France as well as the US where she settled in 1932. The lead part was played by Maureen O’Hara, on loan from 20th Century Fox. She plays a singer, Marian Washburn, who loses her singing voice to a mystery illness. She can still sing but not with the distinctive voice that made her a star. Her long term admirer Luke Jordan (Melvyn Douglas), piano player and general music fixer, remains her companion and one day they discover by accident a young woman down on her luck who has a ‘voice’. They encourage her and she becomes Marian’s protégé. The young woman is Susan Caldwell (Gloria Grahame) who eventually becomes a radio star as ‘Estrelita’. One night after a show, Susan is upset and argues with Marian with tragic results. Susan is seriously wounded and hospitalised. Marian is arrested and the ‘secret’ of the title is why she did what she appears to have done. Marian admits to wounding Susan – but we haven’t yet seen what actually happened. Will Susan recover?

Nick Ray directs Maureen O’Hara as Marian

The film starts with Susan’s radio show and then the argument. Marian’s back story is filled in with quite lengthy flashbacks and we get to see how her relationship with Susan developed. The narrative might best be described as ‘playful’. The original material was adapted by Herman J. Mankiewicz, one of the most celebrated Hollywood screenwriters from the mid-1920s through to the early 1950s, so this was one of his last screenplays. His younger brother Joe was also a talented screenwriter and director of films like All About Eve (1950). Herman is perhaps best remembered as the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Citizen Kane and the man known as ‘Mank’ about whom David Fincher directed a feature of the same title in 2020. His playfulness here  comes out in some of the dialogue and in the development of a sub-plot about the detective assigned to the case, Det. Fowler (Jay C. Flippen) and his arguments with his wife (Mary Philips). Husband and wife squabble as he always brings his work home. This time Fowler gets very pally with Luke Jordan, discussing the case at length and in response Mrs Philips gets out her Sherlock Holmes kit and proceeds to do her own sleuthing.

The film doesn’t seem to know what kind of film it is. Potentially it is a film ‘about’ singing and includes several performances. Maureen O’Hara sings in her own voice but Gloria Grahame is dubbed. Somehow though, the singing doesn’t amount to much and the film certainly isn’t a musical. It could be a mystery, a puzzle narrative – what really went on in that bedroom where Susan and Marian argued? How will Fowler and co. get the truth out of Marian? Finally, however, it seems that the film is a form of melodrama. It borrows devices from films noirs, an RKO speciality, and I was reminded of Out of the Past (1947). There are only a few noirish images, but the flashback structure was what reminded me of Out of the Past, especially a flashback to a bar in Algiers, where I half expected to find Robert Mitchum waiting for Jane Greer. The DoP is George Diskant who worked on several Nick Ray pictures including On Dangerous Ground (1951), featuring Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino. Ray’s career at RKO included several melodramas, both male and female-centred, and it isn’t surprising that noir elements crept into them as they were common in many studio productions at the time.

The staircase in the apartment Susan shares with Marian, a typical Ray composition

I can see why critics and some audiences didn’t like A Woman’s Secret and it is certainly a strange hotch-potch, but I liked its various sequences even if they don’t necessarily go well together. Mankiewicz provides some entertaining dialogue and my main reason for watching the film, to remind myself of Gloria Grahame’s performance, worked out well. Grahame is always interesting and I like Maureen O’Hara as a performer as well. One interesting auteurist aspect of the film is the staging of the first meeting of Marian, Luke and Susan (the key moment in structuring the narrative) takes place on a staircase, going down to a rehearsal room. There is also a staircase in the apartment Marian and Susan share (see above). Ray for me is always associated with the staircase, that bridge between two worlds, in this case between the bustling city outside and the world of music below. Three of the most famous of Ray’s staircase scenes are in Johnny Guitar (1954), Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Bigger than Life (1956). Ray briefly flirted with architecture as a young man and critics have noted the development of a mise en scène and a compositional and choreographic style that reflects an interesting in deviating from the straight line.

A Woman’s Secret is one of the RKO pictures which the BBC acquired ‘in perpetuity’ and it is currently available in the UK on iPlayer for several months. I think it is definitely worth a look for Grahame, O’Hara, the dialogue and early Ray style (and all in just 81 minutes). Here’s a clip of Maureen O’Hara singing. It’s a flashback, so introduced by a dissolve:

LFF 2021 #5: Hit the Road (Jaddeh Khaki, Iran 2021)

Hassan Majouni as the older man and Amin Simiar as the younger man

This début feature was shown in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes this year. But then the writer-director has the distinction of being the son of Jafar Panahi. In the film’s online introduction, Panah Panahi explained that he has always liked to start watching films ‘from zero’ and that he didn’t want his audience to read about or be told about his film before they watched it. I’d better be careful and not say too much.

Pantea Panahiha as the woman

As the title implies this is a form of road movie. For an ancient viewer like me it has been very difficult to think of the title without adding ‘Jack’ – ‘Hit the Road Jack’ by Ray Charles (1961) was a classic song of my youth. Of course, road movies often have music on car radios or players and this film continues the tradition. The Iranian pop songs of the 1970s are enjoyable and especially in the way they are used here. We meet four people who are probably related but we don’t get their names. There is an older couple, a younger man as the driver and a small boy, a real bundle of energy. There is also a dog, possibly sick or injured. Why are they together on this journey? Where are they going and why? We will find out over the course of the film, though we won’t ever know everything. You will however, have a wonderful time and will be glad you saw the film. I can’t guarantee that of course but all the reactions I’ve seen have been good.

This image seems almost like a painted backdrop

If you saw the film 3 Faces (Iran 2018), made by Jafar Panahi, it could give you some idea about what you might see in Hit the Road. This new film is not a copy or a sequel, but the region where it was shot looks familiar. It might be in the mountains of Northern Iran from where the Panahi family originate. 3 Faces was edited by Panah Panahi and it was photographed by Amin Jafari. Panah Panahi asked him to shoot Hit the Road and in the Q&A said that they worked well together with the cinematographer providing advice about working with actors. Panah Panahi had previously made his own music video productions but did not have the experience of working with successful actors such as Pantea Panahiha as the woman and Hassan Majouni as her partner. The director revealed that he eventually realised that they each approached their roles very differently and that it was best to to allow this to happen rather than attempt to impose his own ideas. The young boy and the young man are played by actors who I don’t think have had previous experience so would have to have been directed differently. But however he did it Panahi found the right method.

What I’ve described sounds like a familiar realist/neo-realist road movie enhanced by the treatment of landscape. Panahi told us that he and Jafari decided to stick with ‘normal’ lenses (i.e. 35-50mm) and to avoid any spatial distortion. This is another familiar aspect of a neo-realist approach, especially with the use of long shots – ‘figures in a landscape’- see the trailer below. Panahi does however offer us a very beautiful and moving fantasy sequence towards the end of the film which is all the more affecting because of the contrast with what we have seen previously.

For many reviewers, Rayan Sarlak as the boy steals the film

Hit the Road has been acquired for UK and Ireland distribution by Picturehouse so it will come to UK cinemas. I note that it is also screening in the Leeds International Film Festival in November. Try and see it if it comes to a cinema near you. It will look very good on a big screen.

Here’s a very good trailer that shows you the four characters and gives glimpses of the use of landscapes, but doesn’t give away anything concrete about the narrative as such.

LFF 2021 #4: Rehana (Bangladesh-Singapore-Qatar 2021)

For the last few years I’ve managed to find a Bangladeshi film in at least one festival each year. They have all been worth watching for different reasons. Rehana continues the run in this year of the 50th anniversary of the country’s foundation. It has also become the first Bangladeshi film in competition at Cannes this year. How can I categorise it? It feels a little like a hybrid, a social realist/art film. It has a sensibility that melds a Ken Loach/Dardennes Brothers melodrama with an independent Iranian film investigating the struggles of an intelligent woman trapped in an institutional framework which seeks to control her agency. But isn’t a film which sets out to present a clear political message. Indeed its narrative resolution is at the same time conclusive about its central character and open-ended about what will happen next. It’s a hard watch but rewarding and confirms its writer-director Abdullah Mohammad Saad as a talent to watch out for at international festivals, confirming the promise of his first film, Live From Dhaka (Bangladesh 2016).

Rehana in the exam room.

The film’s original title is ‘Rehana Maryam Noor’, the central character of the narrative. She is a young widow with a daughter in the first grade of school and with her parents and younger unemployed brother to support. She has worked hard to achieve the position of Assistant Professor at a private Medical Teaching College, but the complex plotting of the narrative suggests that she faces a network of institutional issues affecting each part of her life. We first meet her dealing with her daughter Emu who has joined her at work. Usually the child will be taken to school and collected by her grandmother or by her uncle Roni. With Emu sorted, Rehana has to invigilate an exam. She discovers what she believes is a student cheating and expels her from the exam. The young woman, Mimi, is supported by her friend Annie and Rehana’s decision will have consequences. At this point it isn’t obvious that two different narrative strands – Emu’s schooling and the fate of Mimi and Annie will be related, but both will become major issues for Rehana. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’ll focus on Rehana and the institutions.

Bangladesh is a country that has experienced female leaders (the current PM is Sheikh Hasina preceded by Khaleda Zia and both women have had long political careers) and women have been able to progress in the professions, yet the society is still patriarchal (like most societies). Rehana is determined to ‘do things properly’ both in terms of her family responsibilities and her work. Emu is an intelligent and lively child who should be the kind of student every teacher dreams of. But we never see her at school, we only know that the school thinks Rehana, the working mother, is neglecting her daughter. In her college, Rehana wants to support the female students but also to observe correct procedures. She will find herself embroiled in a case of alleged sexual harassment involving Annie and Mimi and her own line manager Dr. Arefin, who is also the student liaison officer. The principal of the college is also a woman whose support is important to Rehana but, as she points out, she has to answer to a board and the college’s reputation is perhaps the board’s primary concern.

Rehana challenges Dr. Arefin

Director Saad and his cinematographer Tuhin Tamijul present this drama using a hand-held camera for ‘Scope compositions with what appears to be a blue filter throughout the film. The whole narrative plays out in the college building, a location which to me sometimes seemed more like an airport building than a college, with large windows and corridors but no sense of what kind of world lies outside. I don’t remember any music score and though there is significant action/interaction between characters, there is also a very measured sense of pacing. Some characters, especially Rehana, sometimes pause, either thinking about what to say or do or simply stunned into silence by the difficulties of the situation. Overall, the tone of the film’s presentation is ‘austere’. Why then is it so engrossing (but also so uncomfortable)? Much depends on the terrific central performance by Azmeri Haque Badhon. She was present for the online Q&A hosted by Kalpana Nair. She is, I think, an actor in commercial Bangladeshi cinema and TV and she told us that she had never played this kind of role before. The shooting took place over 18 months and she prepared carefully, taking time to change her hair, make-up and nails to lose the glamour as Rehana wears a headscarf and demure dress throughout – in contrast to other staff and students. Annie’s yellow sweater is one of the only splashes of colour in the film. Often the camera presents an angled view of Rehana in profile or frames her in doorways, through gaps, almost as if she has difficulty controlling the space. Badhon’s remarks indicate that the idea of an independent cinema in Bangladesh is still to be established. She said she was keen to take the role because Bangladeshi films don’t place women at the centre of the narrative. I remembered a previous LFF film, Made in Bangladesh (2019), a rousing film about the struggles of female workers to unionise in sweatshops. But then I realised that was a film made by a woman trained in North America and with a history of challenging films back in Bangladesh.

Rehana with her brother Roni – a wannabe comedian

Rehana too has ‘outside support’. Abdullah Mohammad Saad found success with his first film at the Singapore International Film Festival and that perhaps explains why it has a Singapore producer in Jeremy Chua (who was also part of the Q&A). The other producing partner/funder is the Doha Film Institute. Doha funding has helped many Arab cinema projects and I’m guessing this has extended to Bangladesh. These kinds of funding and partnership arrangements are very useful in helping independent films to find outlets in international festivals. It looks like this film has a US release and I hope it becomes available in other territories. I hesitate to say that i ‘enjoyed’ the film – part of it I watched almost between my fingers as I was frightened about what would happen next. Poor Rehana is always up against it. Most of the time I applaud her stubbornness in the face of collusion and corruption, but I would have to admit that sometimes she could just cut people a little slack. She’s right about challenging possible sexual assault but not necessarily in the way  she does it and to a certain extent she should perhaps put her daughter’s future first (because nobody else will). This is an important film so please be prepared to grit your teeth and watch it.

LFF 2021 #3: Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Gûzen to sôzô, Japan 2021)

This is the highest profile film in my selection, winner of the Silver Bear at Berlin this year. I chose it partly because Nick Lacey had written about Happy Hour (2015) on this blog, the five hours plus earlier film by Hamaguchi Ryûsuke. I didn’t think I’d make it through the five hours but at only two this more recent film looked doable. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is an odd title that conjures up for me a different kind of film than that offered here. The original Japanese title is ‘Coincidence and Imagination’ which is a little more helpful. It’s a compendium or anthology film comprising three separate episodes each written and directed by Hamaguchi. The characters and settings are different in each short film. In each case the narrative is built around strained meetings and conversations, behind which are other relevant relationships.

Meiko (Furukawa Kotone) and her ex-boyfriend Kazua (Nakajima Ayumu) discuss his recent meeting with Tsugumi

Episode 1 ‘Magic (or Something Less Assuring)’ deals with two twenty-something female friends. The coincidence in this case turns out to be that Tsugumi meets a man and they appear to fall for each other almost immediately (thus the ‘magic’). But as Meiko listens to her friend’s story she realises that this is Kazua who was once her boyfriend. What will she do? Will she tell Tsugumi and if so, how? Is she jealous? Does she still love Kazua? Episode 2 ‘Door Wide Open’ is rather different. Nao, a mature university student who is married with a small child takes another, younger, student as her lover. They have both taken a French course with Professor Segawaya who always keeps his office door ‘wide open’, mindful of harassment charges. The young man has been held back in class by the Professor and seeks revenge. When the Professor wins a prestigious prize for his novel, the young man dreams up an entrapment plan which he forces his partner to carry out. But what can she do when the door is always wide open and any passing student or staff could look in?

Nao (Mori Katsuki) reads a passage from his novel to Professor Segawa (Shibukawa Kiyohiko)

Episode 3 ‘Once Again’ involves only two characters, but there are other missing characters who are important to the narrative. Natsuko returns to her home city of Sendai to attend a high school reunion of the class of 1998. She hasn’t been back for twenty years since she started work in Tokyo and she discovers that she doesn’t know anybody, until a woman does recognise her but Natsuko can’t remember her name. Next day on her way to the station she sees another woman on the escalator. Is this her old lover? After an entertaining chase around the escalator the two women manage to find each other. But will this ‘reunion’ work out? They go to the woman’s house to make tea. This last episode has a ‘speculative fiction’ aspect to it in that the world has experienced a computer virus which has caused personal files on computers to be dispatched to contacts, sharing secrets and causing disruption. Hamaguchi made this episode after COVID struck and this idea was his response.

Natsuko (Urabe Fusako) and Aya (Kawai Aoba) by Sendai Station

There are several notable aspects of each of these encounters. Most of the ‘action’ is simply a conversation between two people and in one case the two characters are framed in a continuous two-shot for what seems like several minutes with sustained dialogue. To do this, the actors must be very well prepared and at ease with shooting. Hamaguchi discussed acting in his online Introduction and in the Q&A. He stresses that his main motivation was working with his actors and he outlined his methods. What was most interesting for me was his revelation that it was his prior production experience on documentaries that enabled him to understand the issue of anxiety on a shoot, both for himself and the actors or the subjects of the narrative. He works with all the actors together on their lines, repeating them so many times that they internalise the words and relax.

As to the three scenarios, he argues that he thought about seemingly impossible set-ups and how the characters might react to the events in realistic ways. Of the three episodes I found the second most gripping because it generated an erotic tension and the third the most interesting in the way the script developed what seemed a not unusual occurrence when two people meet and they are not sure whether they know each other or who the other person is. What happens is very interesting. The first episode was in some ways the most conventional scenario, but even so did hold my attention because of the quality of the performances.

Nao with her younger lover Sasaki (Kai Shouma) in ‘Door Wide Open’

What surprised me about this film was that I assumed it would feel slow with long conversations but I was very surprised to discover just how quickly the time had flown by because I was so engrossed. Hamaguchi’s work has been compared by international critics to several other directors but mostly I think to Eric Rohmer. He himself mentions the French New Wave plus John Cassevetes and his film Husbands (US 1970) as a major influence. These comparisons represent high praise but the startling thing is that Hamaguchi completed a second film in 2021 and it is also in the LFF programme. Ride My Car (2021), adapted from a Murakami short story is the Japanese Oscar entry for 2022 (and it won the Cannes screenplay this year). It must be very good. One of our regular correspondents, John, has seen it, however, and stated that for him it dragged a little during its three hour running time. I’ll be interested to see it after watching Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. It does seem that with these two films, Hamaguchi is being accepted as the latest international auteur to emerge from Japan.

The technical credits of Wheel of Fortune are all strong but I’d like to pick out the cinematography of Iioka Yukiko which is a crucial element in the success of the acting. I thought the ‘light classical’ piano soundtrack was effective but it doesn’t appear to be credited. I don’t want to pick out any of the actors, all of them were very good for me, though studying performances and following subtitles does mean missing some facial expressions and gestures as the BFI host of the screening Hyun Jin Cho suggested. I realise that I haven’t emphasised that in both Happy Hour and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Hamaguchi has presented female-led stories about women’s desire, but without any sense that this is unusual. This shouldn’t need to be said but still seems necessary. I enjoyed this film very much, especially the opportunity to explore these scenarios.

Modern Films have acquired this film for UK and Ireland distribution. I recommend seeing it and discussing the scenarios. Would you act differently in the same situation as these characters?

LFF 2021 #2: Queen of Glory (US 2021)

Sarah Obeng (Nana Mensah) is back in the Bronx

This shortish first feature (78 mins) is fronted by an outstanding performance by its writer-director-star Nana Mensah. An experienced actor with credits on several TV series and some Independent Cinema titles, Mensah had not intended to direct or to star in the film she was writing. But circumstances eventually pushed her into the other roles and as she said in the included online Q&A, it was good that she wrote the script first not thinking she would play the central character. That way she didn’t cut herself any slack or attempt to avoid certain potential scenarios. The outline narrative of the film is relatively simple and, at least on a structural level, familiar as a universal experience. But because of its specific cultural focus it is also distinctive in its narrative events and settings.

After a credit sequence featuring a montage of Ghanaian textile designs, drumming and dancing, we first meet Sarah in her office at Columbia University. She’s a science grad research student with some supervision duties. She’s hoping her boyfriend, who has been appointed to a more senior post in Ohio, will leave his wife and she can share a house with him. She seems sure this will happen. The ‘inciting incident’ when it arrives almost overwhelms Sarah. Her mother dies suddenly and Sarah is faced with a series of responsibilities, the weight of which severely throws her off-balance. First she learns that she has inherited her mother’s house and her Christian bookshop in the Bronx. Second she must organise not one but two large-scale celebrations, one a ‘white person-style funeral’, but the other a traditional Ghanaian funeral with expectations of attendance by many in the ‘Little Ghana’ community in the Bronx. Third, her estranged father arrives from Accra with expectations of a family reunion. No wonder she has little time to check in with the boyfriend, who I think is probably already mistrusted by many in the audience – he can’t even pronounce ‘Accra’ correctly.

One question for me was trying to work out what kind of a film this was. It has been widely promoted as a comedy and I was relieved that the BFI host of the introduction and Q&A, Grace Barber-Plentie, asked Nana Mensah directly about finding the right tone. Mensah was willing to describe her film as a comedy and said that the mixing of grief and comedy was something that did happen in her culture. It strikes me that the same is true in most cultures. It is often said that weddings and funerals have much the same capacity for comedy and drama in my Northern English culture and I suspect it is the same in most others.

A rather dazed Sarah is measured for a new dress for the Ghanaian funeral gathering . . .

From my perspective the narrative suggests a form of realist family melodrama with comic elements. The real story is about Sarah’s struggle to understand what she might be losing if she sells the house and the bookshop and follows her boyfriend to Ohio. This includes questions about the value she places on family ties and friendships within her community. It’s also a question about what a ‘hyphenate’ identity means in the US today. In other words, it’s a diaspora narrative. As I watched the film I realised that I probably know more about Francophone West African cultures both in Africa and in France than the Anglophone West African cultures in the UK and US. This is because of the way film and TV have developed in West Africa in the post-colonial period. I’m aware of a triangular relationship between Nigeria and Ghana with the UK and US, but I don’t have much access to the films and TV produced even though Nollywood and Ghallywood are prolific producers. The films are hard to see in the UK outside specific cities with a Nigerian or Ghanaian community. Nana Mensah’s film feels more like an American Independent film, but there are elements of Ghanaian Cinema as well, I think. She uses archive footage at various points to offer a sense of traditional ceremonies and life on the streets of Accra. One of the key cultural ‘threads’ in the narrative focuses on food. Early in the film Sarah eats pizza and snacks. For the funeral parties she makes, or buys in, Ghanaian food. The prospect of going to the meat market in the Bronx is also intercut with footage of street abattoirs in Ghana, and buying meat (i.e. ‘real meat’) is something she can barely stomach. By the end of the film, however, she is making rice and meat stew for her father.

. . . emerging transformed in this stunning outfit

I enjoyed the film but I agree with at least one other reviewer who recognises that it is almost as if the production ran out of money (and time) since some narrative threads are left in the air and others are quickly resolved. Nana Mensah discussed her positive experience with Kickstarter in the Q&A, but also stressed the work needed to deal with the funding. I don’t know if the production was affected by COVID. This is still an impressive début picture. I enjoyed the ‘Scope photography by Cybel Martin and the editing by Cooper Troxell. I also enjoyed the music in the film, especially the song over the closing credits. I should also mention the actor Meeko who plays the important role of the Christian bookshop manager. The ‘King of Glory’ shop is a ‘real’ location, owned by one of Mensah’s relatives. Anya Migdal was one of the producers of the film and she also plays the the first generation Russian-American next door neighbour in the Bronx who remembers Sarah from the local high school. This was also a promising narrative strand, but like the bookshop perhaps not fully realised.

Queen of Glory won a prize at its home festival Tribeca and it was well-received by Lovia Gyarkye, The Hollywood Reporter‘s Ghanaian-American reviewer. I’m sure it would find a UK audience if some form of release is possible. Here’s a festival trailer.