I missed this film when it premiered at the end of the Glasgow Film Festival last year. It is now slowly making its way around the UK and if it comes it appears anywhere near you, please make an effort to see it. You won’t be disappointed. On a wet windy evening in Hebden Bridge it was a rare treat to be confronted with a queue outside the Picture House – and applause at the end of the screening. It is showing again in West Yorkshire at the Shipley Community Cinema on 18th January (other venues for the ‘rolling’ distribution are listed on the website).
The film’s title neatly encapsulates its political and comradely subject matter. ‘¡Nae pasaran!’ has become familiar with resistance to fascism across the Hispanic world. The slogan, “They shall not pass!” was associated with the Basque Republican fighter La pasionaria (Dolores Ibárruri) during the Battle of Madrid in 1936. In its current context it refers to the actions of Scottish engineering workers at the Rolls Royce factory in East Kilbride who ‘blacked’ the Avon aero engines sent to the factory for overhaul in 1974 after the military coup in Chile in September 1973. This action meant that the workers (in a totally unionised plant) refused to work on engines that the Pinochet regime in Chile might use in their Hawker Hunter aircraft to suppress any opposition to the new fascist dictatorship. The action was prompted by one of the workers appointed as an ‘inspector’ of the engines. Eight engines were placed outside the factory where they slowly deteriorated until four of them were ‘spirited away’ one night using blackleg transport. The story may have remained an ‘anecdote’ but for the investigative work of the filmmaker Felipe Bustos Sierra, the son of an exiled Chilean journalist in Belgium who first made a successful short film and then expanded it into this feature-length documentary.
Sierra interviewed the surviving workers involved in the strike/boycott and then went to find witnesses in Chile. I think he began the project in 2013 (the first of the Chilean interviewees died in 2014 according to the closing credits). The worker who began the action, Bob Fulton, is I think 90 when we see him in the film. It’s impossible to watch this true working-class hero (and his two colleagues) without welling up. Sierra has found some truly shocking footage to illustrate the horrors of the coup. I’ve seen the two Patricio Guzmán documentaries in recent years, Nostalgia for the Light (2010) and The Pearl Button (2015) both of which explore the horrors of the dictatorship but I’m still shocked with the ferocity and inhumanity of what happened on September 11th 1973. Some of the footage in Nae Pasaran was new to me. I think the shots of the nun who waited by the river to fish out the floating corpses of workers and activists murdered in the night will remain with me.
Sierra discovers some of the Chileans who survived incarceration, possibly as a result of the Scottish workers’ action which was part of an international campaign of solidarity. Labour returned to power in the UK in 1974 and the new ministers, Judith Hart and Alex Lyon both helped to make the UK a possible place of exile for Chileans. Even so they ran up against civil servants and military chiefs who made it difficult to clear the exiles and to grant refugee status. The British military would seemingly still rather listen to the CIA, who allegedly helped Pinochet mount the coup against a democratically elected government, than to refugees who had witnessed murder and torture. A credit at the end of the film tells us that Rolls Royce and the RAF were not prepared to make statements to the filmmaker. Sierra also interviews some of those who worked for the junta, including a retired Air Force General who still seems incapable of remorse.
Most of all though, many audiences will be moved by the humanity and solidarity expressed through the contacts between the East Kilbride workers and the Chilean survivors. Felipe Bustos Sierra is based in Edinburgh and he has an easy rapport with the retired workers in the pub, showing them his interviewees in Chile expressing their gratitude for the solidarity of the Scottish workers and explaining what it meant to them. Some were convinced that it helped them be released and travel to Europe. The film ends with a public presentation of honours granted to the three leaders of the strike action in 1974. Go and see this film. It is well-made and tells its story powerfully. It will make you feel better and remind you of what solidarity means – and why trades unions are an essential part of any democracy. I certainly feel humbled and wished I had done more to help in 1974-5.
I was lucky to catch Roma on the big screen after a mad dash from Kings Cross to Leicester Square and then to the Curzon Soho – I was briefly in London with three hours to spare. I refuse to subscribe to Netflix so the only other option was a trip to tiny screens in Curzons in Sheffield or Ripon. (See Keith’s earlier posting on the difficulties of seeing the film in West Yorkshire.) I didn’t worry though. I knew the effort would be worthwhile and it was. A great deal has already been written about Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘memoir’ and I wonder if I can say anything new? I’m not one, I hope, to be taken in by all the hype that surrounds a Golden Lion winner at Venice. So I’ll try to be dispassionate.
Much as been made about Cuarón’s multiple roles as writer-director, co-producer, cinematographer and editor. Roma‘s camerawork has plenty of attention. Cuarón shot the film on an Alexa 65 digital film camera. This means that he recorded more visual data via the ‘capture chip’ in the camera than most digitally shot films. The projected film is shown in black & white in a CinemaScope 2.35:1 ratio and it looks very good. There are possible ‘flaws’ however. Cuarón is fond of both tracking shots and pans to construct scenes in long takes. Because much of the film is set in an upper middle-class district of Mexico City (‘Roma’) in streets and inside a family home using only ‘available’ light, there is often a quite shallow field of focus and several shots throw characters out of focus or distort the image as the camera pans and tracks (I assume that this is a function of the lenses and the focal length). This in turn offers a comment on the neo-realist qualities of the cinematography. Occasionally, Cuarón swings the camera up and catches a jet airliner flying high over the city but most times that a wide vista offering the deep focus of classic neo-realist imagery in long shot is developed is in the scenes set outside the city centre such as where a large group of young men are practising martial arts moves in a form of parade ground setting or when the family travel to the beaches near Vera Cruz. I mention neo-realism simply because it is one of the cinema aesthetics mentioned by critics writing about the film, but Roma is not a neo-realist film. It does, however, achieve the emotional impact of some of the classic neo-realist melodramas.
The look of the film has been seen as very important for several reasons. Cuarón has said that he went to Netflix because traditional Hollywood studios would question a project on this scale presented in black and white and without a conventional genre-based narrative or recognisable international stars. Cinephiles also have expectations of the camerawork and staging which were so important in the closing scenes of Children of Men (2006 US-UK-Japan) and throughout Gravity (UK-US 2013). Cuarón himself has further generated expectations by promoting 70mm film screenings and making claims about the details in the projected image. (Screen 1 at Curzon Soho has both 35mm film and 4K digital projection. I assume what I watched was a DCP but whether it was 2K or 4K, I don’t know.) But while the image (visual and aural) attracts cinephiles, several film fans on IMDb complain that “there is no story”. I don’t agree, but I can see where the complaint comes from.
The film is a ‘memoir’. It is set over roughly one year from the summer of 1970 to the middle of 1971. Alfonso Cuarón had his 9th birthday in November 1970 in a similar house in the same district of Mexico City. His younger brother Carlos was 4 at that time and I believe Alfonso also has a sister Christina. Mexico hosted the Olympic Games in 1968 and the World Cup in 1970. Large scale student demonstrations in Mexico City broke out in 1971 resulting in the ‘massacre’ of 120 student protestors in June. The latter, known as the ‘Corpus Christi massacre’ features in the film. The civil action was part of a protest during the so-called ‘Dirty War’ in Mexico. The fictitious family presumably mirrors the social class position of the Cuarón family at this point.
[I should guide any readers at this point to the dossier of essays on Roma published by Mediático “a collectively authored media and film studies blog, which showcases a diverse array of research, news, views and perspectives on Latin(o/a) American, Spanish and Portuguese media cultures”. The dossier can be found at http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/mediatico/2018/12/24/introduction-to-the-special-dossier-on-roma-alfonso-cuaron/ These experts on Latin American cinema know far more than I do. I’m still going to make my comments, but you can use the dossier to explore the issues in more detail.]
The family comprises the mother Sofía, the father (who moves out in the early part of the film), three young sons and a daughter ranging in age from 4 to young teenager and Sofía’s mother, Sra. Teresa. The household also includes a large dog kept in the closed driveway and two house servants who live in an annex. One of these is Cleo who acts as a maid/nanny and she is the main protagonist of the story. The other is Adela who seems to be mainly concerned with cooking, cleaning and laundry. There is also a male handyman who works mainly as a driver but I don’t think he ‘lives in’. Cleo is based on Alfonso Cuarón’s own nanny, Liboria or ‘Libo’, to whom the film is dedicated.
The narrative follows the daily lives of the household through the period in which the father absents himself, first on a plausible trip to a conference which is then extended. Sofía will at first keep up the pretence that he will return but will eventually be forced to tell the children. Cleo is part of the household but on her days off she has a boyfriend and we follow the course of her relationship with him. If this sounds like an intimate family melodrama, Cuarón makes it into something more akin to an epic ‘city symphony’ using CGI to fill in the period details in the street scenes including memorable visits to cinemas and a theatre, the government hospital (where the father is a senior figure), a New Year house party with relatives in the outer suburbs (Mexico City covers a vast area) and the activities of ‘Profesor Zovek’ (a showman performer played by a famous wrestler known as ‘Latin Lover’ – wrestlers in Mexico are celebrity figures and feature in popular films). So there is a story, which in its final act becomes highly emotional and delivers the punch of a superior melodrama. But, in an important sense, there is much more to the film and it is the wealth of detail and the richness of allusion which makes the film so compelling.
I was struck quite early in the film by the importance of its relationship to Y tu mamá también (Mexico 2001). I’ve written quite extensively on this film in various places and therefore it has stayed with me. I think that audiences who aren’t familiar with the earlier film will miss something because they won’t be prompted to think about the different ways in which the two films approach some of the same ideas. (The dossier quoted above suggests that other Cuarón films are also important but I’ll stick with the one that is most closely connected.) There is too much to analyse in a single post but I should explain that the first film is set in the 1990s and is a form of road trip in which two young Mexican men take a road trip to the coast from Mexico City with an older female cousin of one of them. There is sex, drama and comedy along the way (and a narrative twist) but the film also acts as a social/political commentary on Mexico as a ‘teenage country’ (Cuarón’s term). The two young men Julio and Tenoch come from different social class positions. Tenoch is the character with the Cuarón family characteristics, coming from an upper middle class (in Mexican terms) family. His maid/nanny in the film is played by the real Liboria. Cuarón uses a device in the film borrowed from Jean-Luc Godard in which the ambient sound is cut and a voiceover comments on the action and on Mexican society/polity. So, for instance, when the boys drive through a village, the voiceover tells us that this is Leo/Liboria’s village. In Roma, Cuarón places similar information in the dialogue of the family melodrama. In a way this is more direct, but actually it requires more work to make the connections. For instance, although it is not said explicitly, we can deduce that the family has done very well under the long-running PRI government. They are the beneficiaries of state-supported ‘professionalisation’ – the father is a senior physician, the mother is a bio-chemist and university lecturer. At the same time, government policies have impoverished rural Mexico and encouraged the peasantry to migrate to the city where, like Cleo, they are forced to work as servants. Later in the narrative, Cleo will learn that another government initiative has taken her mother’s land rights away from her. Given the structure of society, the class system is also based on race. The family belong to the 9% ‘European’ population of Mexico. The rest of the population is Mestizo (‘mixed race’) at 60% and Indigenous at 30%. Cleo and Adela speak at various points in the Mixtec language of the peoples of Western Oaxaca (which is on the Pacific coast but is actually not far from the Caribbean coast of Vera Cruz given that Mexico is at its narrowest in this South-Eastern region). The UK print of Roma has two separate subtitle texts with the translation of the Mixtec dialogue shown inside square brackets.
In the dossier referenced above, Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado refers to the distinction above in the two ways of delivering the social/political commentary and suggests that in Roma it is ‘sensorially conveyed’. This is achieved in two ways, first in Cuaron’s approach to the cinematography – i.e. using camera movement, composition and framing to signify the lived culture of the family in the city – and secondly through the soundtrack:
. . . the sound design, Roma’s most brilliant technical feat, building on the territory explored by directors like Lucrecia Martel in La ciénaga, turns the noises and utterances of everyday life, along with the mediascape of Mexican and global popular culture, into a constant set of signifiers related to the affective and social environment of 1970s modernity.
Sánchez Prado is not the only one to single out the film’s sound design and many critics have commented on it. I found it quite disconcerting in the Curzon cinema and it reminded me of the dramatic sound design of films like Apocalypse Now (Walter Murch, 1979). I was sat in the third row of 250 seat cinema and I was conscious of sound from behind me and from the sides of the auditorium. Background chatter and traffic noise were so subtly rendered that I thought for a moment that a door had been left open in the cinema. I can’t imagine the same experience is available via Netflix. I don’t think I could process all the sounds and visual images that I was offered – this is an incredibly rich text. But I would need to go back to a cinema and that looks very difficult. What have you done, Alfonso? I understand that Netflix enabled your creative freedom, but it’s important that audiences can see your film in a cinema. Thank you for this remarkable film, but I want to watch it again.
The triumph of the film is to place us in a position from where we can attempt to understand a world from the perspective of Cleo – played in the film by a non-professional actor, Yalitza Aparicio. Some critics have remarked that Cleo says very little and that the family members treat her badly. But I think that the aim is for us to work out for ourselves what Cleo is thinking about what she sees. I don’t think that the family treats Cleo badly out of malice. I think that they behave towards someone who is very important for them emotionally in ways that have developed within a society structured around race and social class divisions. I enjoyed the film immensely and in the dramatic scenes in the latter part of the film I was unable to stop the tears which were shed for Cleo. The film is 135 minutes long and at the end of the screening, including the long credit sequence, the woman behind me said to her friend: “Gosh, is that the time? It’s hard to believe we’ve been here that long.” That’s the result of watching a great film in the cinema.
This is an African-American Independent film that has received significant support for a début feature. The director Boots Riley appears on IMDb with a smattering of different credits as a writer and performer and he has had a successful musical career through the rapping collective The Coup, but for his first feature he has recruited Danny Glover, Forest Whitaker and Rosario Dawson in small parts and has Tessa Thompson in the lead female role. His protagonist Cassius (Cash) Green is played by Lakeith Stanfield, also an established actor, and Riley finds himself as the cover story for Sight and Sound‘s December issue. Inside, the interview conducted by Kaleem Aftab reveals that Riley comes from a family of left-wing activists in Oakland, that he went to film school and that he was inspired by Spike Lee. His film was also supported by the Sundance festival and is distributed by Focus Features/Universal in the UK.
I found the film interesting throughout, but there were also moments when I thought it wasn’t working. Adam Nayman’s review in Sight and Sound makes a couple of points that seem relevant to me. The first is to compare Sorry to Bother You to a film like Black Panther (which I haven’t seen) and to suggest that whatever the flaws in Boots Riley’s film, it is straightforwardly honest in its attempt to expose several different but connected political issues. This is quite different from the political impact of a ‘branded blockbuster’ which requires critical attention to reveal its possible political discourses. Secondly, Nayman suggests that Sorry to Bother You bears a resemblance to Jordan Peele’s Get Out from 2017 and that certainly did occur to me (Peele was also to be offered the role of Cassius until he had his own big success). These two connections go some way towards explaining why Sorry to Bother You has attracted attention.
In attempting to ‘read’ Sorry to Bother You, I did feel caught between a sense of missing some cultural references (e.g. rap music) but also being sidetracked by other filmic references. Our hero ‘Cash’ starts the film broke and living in his uncle’s garage with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a performance artist who earns some money as a ‘human billboard’ advertising local businesses. Cash needs a job and is hired by a ‘telemarketing’ company. This explains the title which is the opening line of a standard script for ‘cold calling’. Riley makes the intrusive nature of the business clear by literally throwing Cash into the same frame as the poor unfortunates who answer their phones. Very quickly, Cash learns from an older colleague (played by Danny Glover) that he will be more successful if he uses his ‘white voice’. He also learns that if he shows promise by hitting high sales targets he might be promoted to ‘power caller’ and ascend to the top, exclusive, floor of the building. Meanwhile, references on local TV and billboards to a new social work/housing programme suggest that this is in fact an ‘alternate Oakland’ in which private enterprise is developing a new quasi-fascist system of communal living and working – mostly it seems for African-Americans.
At this point we realise that this isn’t a simple social comedy but some kind of absurdist satire on US capitalism and its dependence on racial divisions. The narrative then has to bring together the telemarketing scam and the work programme and develop Cash’s role as the seeming innocent who will be drawn into the process and will be offered inducements that will persuade him to betray his friends and co-workers. We know that Cash is an intelligent and generally likeable character who could resist, but the lure of riches is strong when you are broke. Riley chooses to develop a plot involving unionisation of the telemarketing drones and Detroit develops a performance piece which savagely critiques the exploitation of African resources and points the finger at US policy and all individuals who buy phones and other technologies dependent on coltan from the Congo (DRC). The stage is set when Cash is promoted and meets the figure behind the work programme (played by Arnie Hammer). At this point the similarity to Get Out becomes apparent.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative but from this brief plot outline it should be clear that Riley is ambitious in his targets and that’s no bad thing. But political satire is very difficult to pull off and the melding of comedy, politics and fantasy is particularly difficult. In the Sight and Sound interview, Riley says that he spent some time with Spike Jonze and Kaleem Aftab the interviewer later suggests that the film is ‘Brechtian’. Pushing together these two sources of ideas about how to present a narrative gives an indication of the problem Riley faces. I’d add a third in that I was reminded of David Cronenberg’s Existenz (Canada 1999) described by some commentators as a ‘science fiction-body horror film’. I might also add that several lesser American independent films flashed briefly across my mind. And for me that is Riley’s biggest problem – a lack of a consistent tone to his film so that it retains its control over an argument. I can see that there is an argument that this very lack of consistency is itself Brechtian, pushing the audience away and making us think about the film’s construction, but I think other elements work against this idea and that overall the narrative is conventional even as it draws on various genre repertoires.
The supporting roles in the film are interesting. The union organiser in the telemarketing company is ‘Squeeze’ played by the Korean-American actor Steven Yeun. I don’t know whether this has any significance in an Oakland context but it does make the multi-racial union of workers a more potent political force. On the other hand, I think that Tessa Thompson as Detroit is under-used apart from her very disturbing performance piece. I thought she was very good in Dear White People (2014) but again under-used in Creed (2015). She’s also featured strongly in a wide range of other major films. Women generally don’t figure strongly in Sorry to Bother You. They are often simply background figures necessary to present a comic sequence (Rosario Dawson is the voice in the lift to the exclusive floor) and that is definitely a weakness. The sense of (in)coherence is my main concern with the film. But perhaps this can be forgiven in a début film? There are enough well-made political points alongside the visual inventiveness and successful comedy scenes plus music performed by the Coup to make this a film to be recommended and to push forward Boots Riley as a filmmaker to look out for in future. It’s an intelligent film and I’ve deliberately not mentioned some of the links to other specific satires to avoid spoilers.
The trailer doesn’t give away everything – which is a relief:
Mike Leigh was quite right to say that the Peterloo massacre should be taught in schools and he should be credited with bringing it to the screen; however it would have been better with a different writer and director. Leigh allows the film to be carried, up to the massacre, by speeches made by reformers. In the way of middle class Victorians, who never used one word if they could squeeze in ten, there’s a lot of rhetoric. This does give a sense of authenticity, Leigh made his name with ‘realist’ portrayals of the working class, but it also induces extreme torpor in the spectator.
Worse, Leigh’s weakness for caricature, which always marred his representations of the working class for me, leads to distracting characters such as Tim McInnerny’s Prince Regent. Caricature is used for humorous satire and whilst I don’t doubt that the Prince was a buffoon his words are sufficient to damn him; his presentation as a preening peacock is distracting and Ian Mercer’s Dr. Joseph Healey is straight out of the Leigh’s catalogue of the ridiculous grotesque. Worse, to ensure we understand the Salford Yeomanry were drunk before they commenced to slaughter the demonstrators, we are shown them toasting by flinging their beer into the air three times. Apart from the fact that I doubt Northerners would waste their ale in such a way, it has the impact of a sledgehammer entirely unnecessary for the narrative point. Sure, melodrama is about exaggeration and excess but this was plain stupid.
In addition, just as the slaughter is about to commence, Maxine Peake’s character complains she can’t hear the speaker. Fair enough, but the way it is shot evokes Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (UK, 1979) (‘blessed are the cheesemakers’); to introduce farce at this moment was farcical.
There’s more: Leigh cannot direct an action sequence, a large failing at the climax. His constant use of long lens, which foreshortens the perspective and fails to give a convincing sense of space, and placing his camera in ways that seemed to be chosen as the most convenient position (rather than an expressive position) serve only to sow confusion in the audience. It’s not giving a sense of the characters’ confusion and then panic so the horrendous slaughter fails to emotionally engage, a shocking failing when portraying a disgraceful moment in British history.
Dick Pope’s cinematography and Suzie Davies’ production design are good; as are most of the performers. But the result is a massive wasted opportunity to educate in an engaging way a shameful event. Of course the ruling classes don’t slaughter the poor with weapons any more but repress, with sometimes fatal consequences, through institutional means such as Universal Credit. We’re left with a film that will ensure no one makes one about the Peterloo massacre for many years to come and it would have been better if Mike Leigh had never made it.