Category: Politics on film

Small AxeMangrove (UK 2020)

The protest march

‘Mangrove’ refers to the restaurant opened by the Trinidadian Frank Crichlow in North Kensington in 1968. Crichlow had previously run El Rio, a café around the corner. The café had attracted attention by the police because of allegations of drugs being used there. Crichlow was determined that The Mangrove would become a respectable restaurant serving West Indian food. It soon became popular, not only with the local West Indian community, but also celebrities (musicians including Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix), artists/writers and activists. Despite this (or perhaps because of this?) the police raided the restaurant more than once between 1969 and 1970. Fed up and frustrated by these raids (which generally found nothing) Frank Crichlow and others from the community were joined by Darcus Howe, his partner Barbara Beese and Altheia Jones, an activist from the British Black Panther group, in organising a protest march which aimed to pass the three police stations in the area. The march gathered support but was in effect ambushed by the police who arrested nine marchers including the four leaders. The ‘Mangrove Nine’ were charged with ‘riot and affray’. As this was a serious charge the case was heard at the Central Criminal Court (i.e. ‘The Old Bailey’ in 1971). The case lasted a punishing 11 weeks with prison sentences hanging over the accused. These are the facts of the case. I haven’t given the outcome of the case but you can look it up.

The four leaders of the march in the front row of the dock

Steve McQueen has created a film narrative which runs from 1968 to 1971 and includes most of the important elements of the historical record. His script was co-written with Alastair Siddons. I want to make a couple of points about McQueen’s formal approach first. Mangrove is longer than the other films comprising Small Axe and it is presented in a ‘Scope ratio. It presumably has a bigger budget too and includes CGI to portray the area in the 1969 with Westway, the elevated inner city motorway extension, which was being built at the time. There is also a sense of expansiveness and expressionism in the cinematography by Shabier Kirchner, especially in the Old Bailey trial scenes. Also,  it’s one of only two out of the five films to feature an international Hollywood star with Letitia Wright, the Guyanese-British actor seen in films like Black Panther (US 2018) cast in Mangrove as the political activist Altheia Jones.  It’s no surprise that Mangrove has been presented as ‘Episode 1’ of Small Axe.

Letitia Wright as Altheia Jones meeting local South Asian workers as part of her strategy to unionise Black workers

Formally, the film’s narrative structure seems to fall into three sections. The first sets up the opening of the restaurant and the excitement of a community finding it has somewhere to meet and to enjoy its own culture. The second part focuses on the clashes with the police during the raids and on the march. The final section is the long trial sequence. The trial draws on some familiar courtroom drama generic conventions whereas the first section has elements of melodrama in the relationships focused on the restaurant – which also carries through into the ‘home life’ of Darcus Howe and Barbara Beese (but oddly not so much into the relationship between Frank Crichlow and his partner Selma James).

Shaun Parkes as Frank Crichlow

Overall, Mangrove is a conventional presentation of a series of events with at times a documentary feel in terms of details. I did find some of the CGI slightly unreal and the half-built Westway looks almost as if it is a part of a science fiction narrative in the opening sequence as Frank walks home through North Kensington. The trial section is very well handled and works much like classical Hollywood. In a way though, I was more interested in the first part of the film that explores relationships within the local community. The details here are revealing. The Mangrove became an informal hub for the organisers of the Notting Hill Carnival  and the music culture of Trinidad and the South Eastern Caribbean are included on the soundtrack. Mighty Sparrow appears along with the smooth 1960s country star Jim Reeves, a favourite in the region. I think the inclusion of so much Jamaican music in the form of ska/rock steady and reggae from the late 1960s/early 1970s, especially Toots and the Maytals is there to represent the more familiar music for the wider audience.

Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandell) is arrested during the march after being attacked by a white bystander

Shaun Parkes as Frank Crichlow is very good and it does seem that in the 1960s and into the 70s Trinidadians rather than Jamaicans comprised the the main group of writers and activists in the West Indian community. Frank doesn’t want to be political but he is clearly an important local figure. It’s also good to see the older members of the community using the restaurant as a social space. It must be difficult for some viewers to accept the attitudes of the police as depicted in the film but this was definitely how it was. Police culture and behaviour is a strong element in three of the Small Axe films and in the 1970s and 1980s, the Metropolitan Police had a dreadful reputation for corruption and a canteen culture of racism and sexism. Inevitably McQueen is forced into generic modes of characterisation. There has to be a younger constable who is not inherently racist but is pushed towards action by the group and threatened with being ostracised if he doesn’t conform. I did find the police in action to be sometimes quite comical in a Keystone Cops kind of way. This is before the helmets and truncheons were replaced by hard hats and riot shields and batons. There is nothing comical about their violence, however. I was stunned to learn that the police officer who led the raids was ‘PC Pulley’, a real person. I’m still baffled as to how he was in a position of enough authority to indulge his own racist mission. A surprise for modern audiences is just how many uniformed officers a local police station could turn out for a small protest march. I don’t know the actual numbers in 1970 but in the later 1970s, all demonstrations and also the Notting Hill Carnival were all heavily policed.

Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) reading C L R James, the great Trinidadian historian, socialist and journalist – and cricket writer.

The melodrama elements are important in the middle section of the film and I was impressed by the representation of the Darcus Howe-Barbara Beese relationship. Both actors are again very good and Malachi Kirby as Howe for me caught both the voice and authority of the young activist from Trinidad. The scene represented above is when Howe suggests that the C L R James book Black Jacobins should be taught in schools in the UK. Breese replies that perhaps not in the primary schools where she works. The point here is that these are activists with real relationships rooted in the ‘lived experience’ of their communities. Here Barbara reminds Darcus that they have to be practical and think about their small son as well as their political work. I think I would be interested to see this whole melodrama of relationships and family background explored in more detail in something like a a long-form narrative of its own, but I guess that McQueen does this by offering four other stories each with a different focus.

I should add Letitia Wright’s excellent performance as Altheia Jones to round out my appreciation of the leading players. In fact, the whole cast is impressive and the production overall is a great achievement. Mangrove provides a platform for the other four films and I’ll attempt to relate each of them to the overall project as we go along. One last thought, the years 1968-1971 were tumultuous in London, especially for any kind of political activism. While these events in Notting Hill were important struggles they sat alongside protests over the war in Vietnam, the resistance to apartheid and the boycott of South African rugby and cricket tours. The civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland was about to become an issue in London (there is a moment when anti-Irish prejudice is exposed in the local Notting Hill police during the surveillance of the Mangrove). Eventually, the struggles of the West Indian community would become a larger story and activism would spread across the capital, something which McQueen picks up in the other four films.

Speakerine (The Announcer, France 2018)

The family Beauval

This French TV serial comprising 6 x 52 minute episode is currently available on ‘Walter Presents’, the All4 strand offering foreign language drama in the UK. Set in 1962, this has predictably attracted some Mad Men references in the UK because it is set in the 1960s with close attention to period detail. It does have some Anglo-American TV references but I think it might be a little difficult for some UK audiences to read since it is set in the context of French politics in the early 1960s, a period of great turbulence and no little danger.

Christine with Michèle (Christiane Millet) her friend and supporter at work

The ‘speakerine’ of the title is Christine Beauval (Marie Gillain), the principal ‘announcer’ on RTF (Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française) the French public broadcasting organisation which in 1962 operated only one TV channel and four radio stations. TV broadcasting took much longer to develop in most of Europe compared to the UK and North America and Christine is more like the female presenters on UK TV in the early 1950s who added some glamour and personality to programming while imparting information about the days limited programming. RTF was a ‘PSB’ but unlike the BBC it was much more directly controlled by the French government and therefore a target for political activists. 1962 was a particularly difficult period for the new 5th Republic after President de Gaulle recognised the independence of Algeria, signing the Évian Accords in March 1962 with full independence being declared on July 3rd 1962. There was fierce resistance to de Gaulle’s action from the OAS – the paramilitary organisation set up by ex-soldiers who had fought against the FLN (the Algerian independence movement) as well as pieds noirs (Algerian-born French) and assorted fascists. Several attempts were made to assassinate de Gaulle, one of which formed the basis for Frederick Forsyth’s 1971 thriller ‘The Day of the Jackal’, adapted as a successful film in 1973.

The third political force in France at the time was the French communist party (PCF). In this serial, the management of RTF is associated with control by the Gaullist government. The only communist I’ve come across so far is a journalist at RTF who is clearly sympathetic to the unions in the building. Christine Beauval is married to Pierre (Guillaume de Tonquédecwho is Head of Information at RTF and therefore technically his wife’s line boss. However, the head of the TV channel overall, Darnet, is an enemy of Beauval and is competing with him to head a new venture, ‘Mondovision’. This refers to a broadcast link with the United States via the new Telstar satellites, the first of which was launched in 1962. The satellites enabled live TV links between the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy and Canada. The series shows US personnel arriving in Paris and this was high level stuff having implications for NATO and in particular the rather different ideas of the French and British governments towards the alliance. The BBC were in charge of co-ordinating the transmissions.

Colette with her politician, even as her mother appears on TV

This is the background but the initial focus is on a disturbing series of events featuring the Beauval family. Christine, as the most familiar face of RTF programming with a large fan base, has received threatening letters and has been subject to quite frightening ‘stunts’/’accidents’. Her 18 year-old daughter Colette has got involved with an older man, a politician (the Minister for Information played by Grégory Fitoussi), and finds herself in a difficult situation when she joins a schoolfriend to go to a party which turns out to be not what she expected at all and puts her in a very dangerous situation. Meanwhile her older brother, whose parents managed to prevent from serving in the army in Algeria, has become interested in supporting the OAS because he has friends who have ‘disappeared’ while on military service.

A classic mirror shot of the two-faced Isabelle.

This series of events (and more I haven’t spoiled) has happened by midway through the second episode and I’m hooked. We seem to be in a crime thriller and political intrigue all worked through a family melodrama and one of the darkest moments of French post-war history. Some 2,000 or more people were killed in attacks on Maghrebi people, representatives of the state/public sector and indeed anyone caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, by the OAS. This mix is reminiscent of the three series of Forbrydelsen/The Killing (Denmark-Sweden 2007-12). It is also reminiscent, in a different way, of the recent UK drama serial The Trial of Christine Keeler (UK 2019). The early 1960s saw a series of sex scandals in British politics. The final ingredient in this already potent mixture is the issue of women working in the TV industry and the sexism they face. Just as Christine is looking to move into a form of broadcast journalism at RTF, a new threat to her position appears in the form of a young ‘pretender’ to her role as an announcer. Isabelle (Barbara Probst) claims to be 23 and she is what the older men in charge at RTF think of as a ‘looker’. She is also very bright and highly skilled at deception. What is she up to?

Christine is a celebrity figure for many women in her audience. The headscarf is a nice touch to go with the hair and suit she often wears – strong icons of 1962 mainstream fashion?

From what I’ve seen so far, this is a polished production by France Télévisions (RTF’s PSB successor) with a standout performance by Marie Gillain and good use of locations and period detail. The French New Wave films in the early 1960s were later accused of avoiding many of the political issues of the period (much as RTF in this series avoids ‘unpleasant’ news stories) but I was pleased to  get a sense of various French film genres in this serial. There are certainly strong indicators of the crime and political thriller films in this production. When I looked up Marie Gillain I realised I had seen her as one of the SOE resistance fighters in Les femmes de l’ombre (Female Agents, France 2008).

Since I started this posting, I’ve watched two more episodes and therefore four out of the six episodes and the serial is holding up well. I now see that because Christine is the central figure, the position of women in France in the early 1960s is becoming increasingly central. The series is written by a large team of four men and three women and directed by Laurent Tuel. I recommend the serial but I’m struggling with All4’s use of adverts, seemingly thrown across each episode almost randomly, presumably to persuade us to have them removed for a monthly fee. This isn’t the way to go about building your audience Channel 4!

I couldn’t find a subtitled clip, but here is a French trailer without subs, giving a good idea of the serial in visual terms:

Party (India, Hindi 1984)

The writer Diwakar Barve (Manohar Singh) and his wife Mohini (Rohini Hattangadi) and between them the party hostess Damyanti Rane (Vijaya Mehta) 

Party is one of several ‘parallel cinema’ films that are now available for streaming in the UK via MUBI’s Library. It has been very difficult to see these films in anything like a decent print for many years and it is good to have this new opportunity. It is nearly 20 years since I last tried to summarise what was meant by ‘parallel cinema’ and ‘New Indian Cinema’ in the 1970s/80s. Since then, Omar Ahmed has worked hard in the UK to find film titles and scholarly work around them. His blog at ‘Movie Mahal’ and his writing and PhD research is now a very useful source of both background and reviews of specific titles. His review of this film is here. I’ll try to approach the film a little differently in an attempt to use it more as an exemplar.

Party is a film by the cinematographer turned director Govind Nihalani. Born in Karachi in 1940, Nihalani’s family moved to independent India after partition and he later attended one of the first film schools in India in Bangalore. He then began work as an assistant to the legendary V.K. Murthy, the cinematographer who worked with Guru Dutt in the 1950s. Nihalani  took on cinematographer roles on the parallel films of Shyam Benegal in the 1970s before his own directorial career began in 1980. Party is based mainly on a Marathi theatre play with a script by Mahesh Elkunchwar and it was financed by the NFDC (National Film Development Corporation). This public funding and Nihalani’s background are two indicators of parallel cinema and a third is an extensive ensemble cast list including several names associated with this type of cinema.

Vrinda the would-be communist and feminist takes on the poet Bharat

In some ways, Party is a familiar genre narrative, a form common in many developed societies where discussion of politics and the arts meet in middle class gatherings. It doesn’t seem that long ago that Sally Potter made The Party (UK 2017) and there are other films discussed on this blog which share similar elements. However, the mix of Indian literati and journalists, actors etc. takes place in a Bombay house under circumstances that are significantly different to those in the UK and where demographics are very different. The politics of inequality, the persistence of caste, communalism and the very real violence of political resistance set up an environment in which an upper middle class drinks party is not the same in Bombay as it might be in London or Paris or New York. (It is difficult to discuss Indian society using the socio-economic class definitions familiar in the UK. The hostess of the party is the daughter of an eminent lawyer – a national leader and ‘Cabinet Minister’.)

A classic mirror shot sees Mohini, wondering who she is

Damyanti Rane (Vijaya Mehta) is a widow who hosts a party in honour of a playwright, Diwakar Barve (Manohar Singh), who has won a literary prize. She has invited a range of other writers and their spouses. She has inveigled her daughter, who has a small baby but not a husband, to join the party. Meanwhile her son invites his own friends to a smaller party upstairs where they drink and listen to Western pop/rock music (including the Irena Cara track ‘What a Feeling’ from Flashdance (US 1983) – I wonder what or if – this might have cost?). It soon becomes apparent that there are several conflicts waiting to erupt among the party guests, some of which are sexual/marital but most of which involve politics. There is also a considerable intake of alcohol. Inevitably this is a very ‘talky’ film with relatively little chance to develop an expressive visual style. There is a short section at the beginning of the film setting up the party that finds the various characters in their ‘home’ environments and the house itself is a useful location with staircases, mirrors and a garden which allows some possibilities such as a classic mirror set up in which a character might look at their multiple reflections in adjacent mirrors.

The two major pressure points in the film seem to be firstly the status of women – the writer’s wife who has turned to drink and given up her career, the hostess and her daughter who clash painfully, a young woman who oscillates between flirtation and Marxist dialectics. These conflicts are also connected to the central discourse of politics and the purpose of art. The central character of Barve is revealed as egotistical and something of a fraud whereas the young poet Bharat (‘India’ in Hindi) is passionate but weak and naive. In the last third of the film, these various conflicts are thrown into relief by the late arrival of the journalist, Avinash, played with enormous energy by Om Puri. He has been injured during a protest by tribal peoples against an illegal central government development and he has news of the character everyone has been discussing – the poet Amrit who has done something practical in attempting to help the tribal community in their resistance.

Om Puri as Avinash offers a powerful challenge to the complacency of the other guests

Om Puri is remarkably powerful in these scenes, privileged by the camera, with a compelling speaking voice and his iconic rough and ‘lived in’ face. Everyone has to listen to him. I don’t remember Puri from the small group of parallel/’New Cinema’ films I saw in the 1980s and I only became familiar with him in the last 20 years of his career across independent and mainstream Indian and global cinema, so this was a highlight for me. Similarly, Amrit makes only a fleeting appearance in Party, but it is significant that he is played by Naseeruddin Shah, like Om Puri, an actor who began in films like this and who has over time become an iconic Indian actor, thankfully still with us.

Party is a well-written play with an array of interesting characters. I would pick out the hostess as perhaps the central role. Over the course of the narrative she is criticised and becomes more self-aware. She is a tragic character bit she comes across as more sympathetic than the writer who recognises that he is a fraud but is still prepared to milk his position.

MUBI’s print of Party is a restoration of a film in colour and Academy ratio – common for many films of this kind, some of which might have gained their best audiences via screenings on the Indian PSB TV channel Doordarshan, another indicator of parallel cinema since relatively few cinemas would take the films. The film’s dialogue is in Hindi most of the time but there are significant exchanges in English which would limit the TV audience I suspect. In recent years the same level of English dialogue is found in some more mainstream Hindi films Generally it looks OK. It’s very pleasing that MUBI has made its Library available in this way and I look forward to re-engaging with more of the history of the ‘alternative cinemas’ of India.

Here’s a trailer (no English subs):

Mr. Jones (Poland-UK-Ukraine 2019)

Gareth Jones record his first glimpse of conditions in Ukraine

Directed by Agniezska Holland, Mr Jones first appeared at Berlin a year ago to mixed reviews. I tried to book seats for one of its London Film Festival screenings but they must have sold out in minutes and I couldn’t get in. UK distributor Signature Entertainment, which usually goes straight to DVD/download after only a few theatrical screenings, opened slightly more widely on Friday 14th February. Bradford has significant Polish and Ukranian communities so it was good to see it at the National Media Museum. One of the causes of complaint at Berlin was that the film was too long at 141 minutes. The version we were shown appears to have been shorn of around 22 minutes and the press release gives 119 mins.

The film is based on the true story of Gareth Jones a young Welshman who in 1933 following a Cambridge degree in Russian had managed to get taken on as an ‘adviser’ to the ex-Prime Minister David Lloyd George and in that capacity to travel to Germany to interview Hitler and Goebbels after the Reichstag fire. But on his return to the UK he was unable to impress upon Lloyd George and his cronies the danger that Germany now posed. Undeterred he then pressed to be sent to Moscow to interview Stalin. But instead he found himself released from Lloyd George’s service. He decided to go to Moscow anyway. Later it is revealed that his mother had spent some time teaching in Ukraine and this is why Gareth was inspired to study Russian.

Jones meets Eric Blair , aka George Orwell (Joseph Mawle)

The film was written by Andrea Chalupa, whose website reveals that she is a history scholar in the US. Her Ukrainian grandparents survived Stalin’s theft of grain from Ukraine which caused the deaths of millions from famine. She first turned family history material into a book on George Orwell and Animal Farm which she argues has links to Gareth Jones and his visit to Moscow and Ukraine. In fact the narrative begins with Orwell (Joseph Mawle) typing the first few lines of Animal Farm by a window which offers a view of a sea of grain and a barn. This is the first of Holland’s devices which contest ideas about realism. The script also later invents a meeting between Orwell and Jones around the time when Orwell’s first book Down and Out in Paris and London was published in 1933. I’m not sure what Chalupa means when she claims that Animal Farm was a ‘gift’ to her family but I think she is referring to Orwell’s analysis of how Stalinism betrayed the Republicans and the Trotskyist or anti-Stalinist fighters of the POUM during the Spanish Civil War – and thus supported the critique of Stalin’s terror in the 1930s. It is the Orwell passages that some reviewers objected to in the Berlin screenings of the film. I suspect that some of them have been cut in the new print. I hope this doesn’t mean another case of ‘suppression’. What is clear though is that the film script shifts the timescale of events to create its narrative. Orwell’s Spanish experiences were not published until 1938 in Homage to Catalonia. He was actually in Spain from December in 1936 until June 1937.

The film is in three main sections. In the first Jones (a fine performance by James Norton) gets to Moscow and is disturbed by several of the situations in which he finds himself. In the second he finds himself on his way into ‘the Ukraine’ as it was known in English at the time. He experiences the horrors of the famine and perhaps discovers the village where his mother worked. In the third section he is back in Wales, still trying to get people to listen to his story. I don’t want to offer any more plot details as I found the film exciting and absorbing to watch. Since I don’t think many audiences will have come across Jones before (I hadn’t), the drama is not like many biopics in which we know the narrative highlights already. The film’s exposure of Stalin’s Soviet Union is still in parts a contested story even if we know aspects of the history. For the Ukranians it is, of course, a story they want people to know about. On this score I was surprised by some of the reviewers at Berlin who displayed some alarming gaps in their historical knowledge. One or two quite well-known critics refer to Lloyd George as the UK ‘Foreign Secretary’ and one even makes him Prime Minister. In 1933 the UK had a ‘National Government’ – a form of coalition led by the previous Labour Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald. Lloyd George had not held any kind of government office since 1922 although he did become ‘Father of the House’ (the longest continuously serving MP) in 1929. However, Lloyd George still had resources and a name known throughout Europe as the British Coalition Prime Minister and Wartime Leader from 1916-18. He is played in the film by Kenneth Cranham.

New York Times journalist Walther Daranty at one of the lavish Moscow parties

Some of the ‘real’ historical characters in the story are given credits and descriptions of what happened to them in the end titles. One of the most extraordinary was the New York Times journalist Walther Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), an Englishman who moved to Paris after Cambridge and eventually stationed himself as an American in Moscow, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1932. Gareth Jones’ meetings with Duranty and the subsequent events are an important part of the story. The third major character in the film is Ada Brooks, a journalist from Berlin (her nationality is not clear) who appears to be working with Daranty but who then becomes a potential romantic interest for Jones. This insertion of a ‘love interest’ could have worked out badly but as played by Vanessa Kirby seemed to work well. (I hadn’t seen Ms Kirby before, but she is well-known from the Netflix serial The Crown and other TV and mainstream cinema roles.)

Mr Jones is a shocking story but it is also an accomplished film. I’ve mentioned the director and leading players but I want also to pick out Tomasz Naumiuk, the Polish cinematographer who I note also shot the the Polish scenes for High Life by Claire Denis. The depiction of the Ukranian famine in the snow is remarkable with a very reduced palette of white and gray and dark greens and browns. There are other visual ‘devices’, all of which worked for me but I can see might irritate some audiences. What we can say is that this is not a conventional historical drama. I also liked  the music score by Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz who also scored Agnieszka Holland’s earlier films In Darkness and Spoor and the editing by Michal Czarnecki, another former collaborator with Holland. I do see, however, that the film is a co-production with some of the possible drawbacks of the constraint to shoot in certain territories for funding purposes. The British partner in this case is Creative Scotland and Edinburgh has to become 1930s London and I presume the Welsh scenes are also shot in Scotland. The rest of the film was shot in Ukraine and in Poland with support from local funding schemes in Krakow and Silesia. I think that the film’s strong qualities of performance, direction and cinematography do manage to overcome any uneven moments created by the locations. (Some of you will note a Routemaster bus from the 1950s-60s in the trailer below.) The horror of the Ukrainian famine is known as the Holodomor and this film portrays the story of that horror vividly with real integrity. Do try and find it on the big screen. Otherwise it is widely available on download. 

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

The workers at ‘Modern Apparel’

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

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

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

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

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

Shimu faces pressure from her husband at home

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

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

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

Here’s the (English subtitled) trailer:

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

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

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

The sisters working on the electoral campaign

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

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

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

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

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