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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (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.
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:
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 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.
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.
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.
This film was part of the ‘Cinema Libro FESPACO 1969-2019‘ programme at Il Cinema Ritrovato. The Festival has developed a strong relationship with the World Film Foundation who are leading the African Film Heritage Project which is committed to restoring 50 African films significant in cinema and culture. This series celebrates the Pan African Film and Television Festival at Ouagadougou which was set up in 1969. That festival has become the centre for both enjoying African film and supporting and developing African Cinema.
This title was directed by Med Hondo and provided a testament to this important film-maker who died on 2nd March this year. We had enjoyed a trio of Hondo’s films at the 2017 Ritrovato. And fortunately he attended and we were able to hear him talk about his film work. Med Hondo was born in Mauritania in 1936. He migrated to France in 1959 and the exploitation and oppression of migrants was a central theme in his films. He was well versed in International Cinema and his own work was both unconventional and used avant-garde techniques but in the service of accessible films which were ‘made politically’.
Les Bicots-Négres, Vos Voisins was his second film following on from Soleil O (1967). Aboubakar Sanogo in the Festival Catalogue described the film’s structure:
[It] analyses the living conditions of African migrant workers in France in the m id-1970s . . . It comprises seven sequences exploring, respectively the conditions of possibility of cinematic representations in Africa …historical dissonance through the dialectic of past and present . . . a flashback to the eve of African independence , the predicaments of the post-colony, an assessment of the living conditions of migrant workers and the actions taken to transform these conditions . . .
The film opens with a bravura sequence where an African man addresses the audience direct to camera. In a sardonic manner familiar in Hondo’s films he questions the viewer on cinema, Africa and representation. The camera tracks between close-ups, mid-shots and longshots to also reveal the walls covered with film posters. In other sequences he uses a montage of stills, prints, pictures to show Africa in this way. Dramatised sequences point the experiences of African migrants whilst others point how European capitalism retains its hold, in this case on a ‘Francophone’ Africa. And documentary film reveals the actual conditions and the actual actions as Africans become part of the French proletariat. Towards the close of the film footage of a vast worker’s demonstration, with black and white proletarians side by side, voices the opposition to exploitation and racism.
Hondo and his team used both visual and aural montage as developed by the Soviet pioneers. The cinematography was by Jean Boffety and François Catonné working to a script developed by Hondo. The editing, involving a sequence of stop-motion, was by Michel Masnier. And the music, with a varied combination of African rhythms and French popular songs, was by a team of Catherine Le Forestier, Mohamed Ou Mustapha, Frank Valmont and Louis Zavier.
The screening used a version from 1988. In an approach shared by other in Third Cinema, Hondo screened parts of the film to the workers who appear in it and made changes in accordance with their suggestions. So in the opening sequence we actually see in the background a poster for the release of the first version of the film in 1974. Hondo described it as ‘a work in progress’.
The complete film is challenging but the presentation is quite clear. Med Hondo has a clear grasp of the operation of capital in advanced European states and of the way that neo-colonialism operates in the late C20th. The tone varies from sardonic to dramatic to informative to the powerfully moving. The film was shot in colour and we enjoyed a 35mm print from the Audio-visual Archive of the French Communist Party.
The film develops the content and style of the earlier Soleil O and also connects with the later works of the film-maker. The screening provided a memorial to a fine director. I was saddened by the thought that I would no longer be able to wait for another film from Hondo; who had been trying (it seems vainly) to develop a further cinematic project. However, I am heartened that his unique films will be available still for audiences. A friend in New York recently saw two of these at an impressive retrospective of Liberation Cinema.