This Iranian film features a couple of ideas that will be familiar to fans of global cinema. Firstly it constructs a narrative about the attempts of patriarchy to restrain women’s rights to engage with and enjoy football, as in Jafar Panahi’s Offside (2006). Secondly, it plays out a court procedure with the camera trained on a warring married couple while keeping the judge offscreen. Although the framings and composition are different this scene resembles the well-known one at the beginning of Asgar Farhadi’s A Separation (2011).
The sport in the film is actually futsal, an indoor football game played by by both men and women with five players per side. Since 1999 Iran have won all but three Asian Women’s Futsal Championships. They have also reached the last four of the Fifa World Championship. The game is very important for female athletes in Iran and the focus in the film is on the national team’s (fictitious) captain and main goalscorer Afrooz (Baran Kosari). When the team travels to the airport to fly to Malaysia for the Asian Championships, Afrooz is stopped by passport control and told that she cannot leave the country because her husband has not given his permission (which presumably he has in the past since Afrooz is the team’s top player).
Afrooz tries to contact her husband Yasser, a daytime TV host. But the couple haven’t lived together for some time and in fact Afrooz is living with another team member Panatea in a flat also owned by her husband. Yasser (Amir Jadidi) does everything he can to prevent Afrooz leaving, including physical harassment. The legal conundrum is that Afrooz must either get his permission to travel or obtain a divorce, which seems very difficult in the couple of days before the games begin.
I won’t spoil the narrative of a film by detailing the plot since the film should appear in the UK at some point. The legal issue is quite complex as is often the case in Iran. I’m not sure how constitutional law works in Iran but in most of the films I’ve seen the judiciary seem thorough and fair. It’s the laws themselves that are restrictive. The husband is an extremely annoying character. He’s egotistical, forever preening himself and simpering on TV. Afrooz herself is strong and decisive but also quick to anger (a team captain in the Roy Keane mould). She has every right to be angry since she also has to contend with the woman she has hired as a lawyer who seems more interested in making the case into a media event and the woman who is in effect the team manager and chaperone and who acts as the link to the National Federation. Apart from Panatea, will the rest of the women on the team support her?
A short sequence of a game shown in the early part of the film gives a good representation of the passion of both the players and the fans but I wonder if the struggle by Afrooz to assert her rights is equally well-handled? The trick that Panahi and Farhadi employ so well in these kinds of narratives is to find the humanism in the situation as well as the humour, anger, pathos, frustration and commitment. Writer-director Soheil Beiraghi has got the basis of a good story here (based on real events) but perhaps the script could be developed a little more? Having said that, it is only his second feature as a director and he does create emotional scenes fitting for a melodrama, using close-ups and lighting to show the effect on Afrooz. The film has been generally well-received at festivals and some critics have been very impressed. It’s certainly well worth looking for.
The Glasgow programme listed the film with the title Permission, which seems to be how it has been released in France (as La Permission) but in the US it seems to be Cold Sweat. It would be good to get this sorted if it comes out in the UK. The programme lists the print source as Peccadillo Pictures in the UK, but it hasn’t appeared on that company’s website as yet. Here’s the French trailer:
This film by German-Turkish director Fatih Akin features a ‘powerhouse performance’ by Diane Kruger which won her the best female acting prize at Cannes in 2017. However, when the film went on release in the US and UK (it opened in UK cinemas in June 2018) it failed to do the business that a Cannes prizewinner might expect. Unfortunately that isn’t so unusual. Sometimes Cannes juries make poor choices. On this occasion though, the problem is elsewhere.
First, it’s an awful English language title. The original German title, which I would translate as ‘Out of Nothing’, is at least intriguing. Second, a brief plot outline suggests a conventional genre narrative and the film turns out to be something different. Diane Kruger plays Katja, the wife of Nuri (Numan Acar) a Turkish former drug dealer in Hamburg. She met him as a student buying dope and later married him when he came out of prison. He had been ‘clean’ and ‘straight’ for five years when he and the couple’s 5 year-old son are murdered. At this point Fatih Akin slows down the narrative and focuses on the shock and grief experienced by Katja. It is some time before the second part of the narrative (the film is split into three sections with title card headers) moves into the court case when the accused perpetrators appear in court. The third part goes on to address Katja’s reaction to the court’s verdict.
I can understand why some genre fans will feel disappointed by the film, but the focus is on Katja and Kruger’s performance, not revenge action. The story is inspired by real events in Germany that had a big impact on Fatih Akin and he wants to explore what those events mean for various characters rather than simply offer a form of crime action picture.
Diane Kruger is an attractive woman (she was originally a model, I think) and an accomplished actor. She represents the kind of European star familiar in the 1960s/70s but perhaps less so in contemporary cinema. She speaks French and English fluently and has appeared frequently in French and American cinema. Here she inhabits a character role. Dressed in jeans and leather jacket, with her hair straggly and her almost skeletal frame decorated with tattoos she is no glamour puss. It’s an intense performance which demands that we understand her grief and pain. She turns away her mother and her sister and the person she relies on most is her lawyer.
I found the court scenes very interesting. I don’t think I’ve seen a modern German court in action and I was reminded of the courtroom in the Danish drama A War (2015) in a similar setting. The two films are actually quite different but the austerity/plain décor of the courtroom is quite different from the traditional UK court with its ‘majesty’ and trappings of the ruling class. However, in the one weakness in the film’s casting, I found the defence counsel to be too much of a type, portrayed almost as a stereotypical skinhead bully. Not surprisingly, Katja finds the trial very difficult to cope with. I won’t spoil any of the narrative but it’s interesting that the ways in which the panel of judges comes to a decision reminded very much of the Japanese court in Kore-eda Hirokazu’s recent The Third Murder (Japan 2017). As in all courtroom dramas, there is always the possibility that there will be a tension between what we as the audience know, or think we know, about the crime committed and the proper procedures of a court of law where the judges may not have all the knowledge we, the audience, has.
Katja experiences trauma after the murder and it means that she ceases to menstruate. Towards the end of the narrative, after the courtroom drama she starts again. It appears to be a symbolic moment.
Aus dem Nichts is the kind of film that divides audiences. On IMDb there are ‘User Ratings’ of ‘1’ and also of ’10’. I would recommend the film but I beg you not to set up genre expectations of what you think might happen or what you might want to happen. If you simply approach the film with an open mind, prepared to go where it takes you, that is likely to provide you with the best experience. It’s an 18 film in the UK – because of the situation I think, rathe than what is actually depicted.
Given that John Ford was the most lauded director of the studio era with four Academy Awards and one of the most critically appraised filmmakers during the development of contemporary film studies in the 1960s and 1970s, it’s perhaps surprising that some of his films have not been given more attention. Ford was prolific and ‘independent’. There are a lot of films to choose from, so perhaps that’s the reason, but the more I think about it – and the more I enjoy watching Ford’s films on TV – the more I wonder about how his films have been studied. Sergeant Rutledge certainly deserves more attention.
This 1960 release is unusual in several ways but primarily because it puts Woody Strode as the Cavalry Sergeant of the title at the centre of the narrative. As one blogger has pointed out, it gives us an African-American character in a courtroom drama accused of the rape and murder of a young white woman a couple of years before the more celebrated To Kill a Mockingbird. For John Ford it marks something of a change in his representation of both African-American and Native American characters (though he seemed to slip back again in later films). The Apache in the film generally appear to be ‘authentic’, though the narrative does not give them speaking roles. But at least we are spared the conventional speeches in English. Overall, I don’t think Sergeant Rutledge is ‘coherent’ as it mixes genres and Fordian elements such as casting and acting styles in unusual ways, but this is possibly a good thing. It’s certainly worth investigating.
The film begins with the arrival of Lt. Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter) and the opening of a military trial in the 1880s when Arizona was still a ‘territory’. As the first witness Mary Beecher (Constance Towers) begins her testimony we flash back to her return from the East after many years away. She is heading for her father’s remote ranch and on the train she meets Lt. Cantrell who reluctantly drops her off at a lonely station. A band of Apache warriors have broken out of their ‘reservation’ and Mary is rescued from danger by Woody Strode’s Sergeant Rutledge, who appears from the darkness, wounded but still able to attack the two warriors who approach her. We realise that Rutledge was escaping a crime scene and now he has been brought back to the fort where Cantrell is representing him. The rest of the film narrative unfolds through flashbacks as each of the witnesses give statements. At first, we don’t know what Rutledge is supposed to have done and Ford uses the courtroom drama mixed with the suspense story. Gradually the story unfolds and we see that Rutledge is taken into custody but then, along with Mary Beecher, is taken on Cantrell’s mission to return the Apache to their reservation. This then introduces the third genre repertoire of the action stories of the ‘Indian Wars’.
Woody Strode (1914-94) was a football player and imposing athlete (6’4″) who began to get bit parts in films and then later TV from the early 1940s onwards. By the 1950s he had regular screen work, but mainly in action adventure films, several set in Africa. In 1956 he played the King of Ethiopia in The Ten Commandments. Sergeant Rutledge was his first film for John Ford and one of his first leading roles. He would go on to appear in three more of Ford’s late films followed by other major Westerns (famously in the opening sequence of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)). It is significant that Ford had not used Strode before, especially as Strode had Native American as well as African-American ancestry. Because of his imposing physique, Woody Strode would struggle to escape the confines of stereotypical roles. He was both ‘imposing’ and also ‘noble’. It’s worth noting that the other significant Black role in the film, Sgt. Skidmore, is played by Juano Hernandez (1901-70) an actor from a Puerto Rican background who doesn’t have the same physical presence as Woody Strode, but whose credits suggest a more varied range of roles. His first role was in an Oscar Micheaux ‘race’ film (i.e. an all Black cast and intended for a Black audience) in 1932.
The release of Sergeant Rutledge came at a crucial time for the progress of the Civil Rights movement in the US and the possibilities for African-American actors. Major stars such as Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were still mainly involved in social or crime dramas/melodramas/musicals at this point. It was still unusual to find African-American actors in Westerns. In one sense, Sergeant Rutledge was undoubtedly progressive in featuring a ‘Negro troop’ in the 9th Cavalry based on the historical records of two such cavalry regiments (and four, later two, regiments of infantry) in the US Army after 1865. The troop presented a variety of ‘types’ and provided small roles for several uncredited Black actors. This didn’t go far enough for cultural activists but it was a start. Tag Gallagher in John Ford: The Man and His Films (1986) is one of several scholars who repeat the words of Woody Strode quoted in Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington’s John Ford (1975) in which the actor says he will never forget Sergeant Rutledge and how Ford “put classic words in my mouth . . . You never seen a Negro come off a mountain like John Wayne before . . . I carried the whole black race across the river”. Strode is referring to the long sequence in which the Sergeant first escapes and then returns to help the troop under attack.
Sergeant Rutledge was not a commercial success in North America. I’m not sure how the film played in Europe but as with The Searchers (1956), the European film posters shown below are interesting. The French title of The Searchers translated as ‘Prisoner of the Desert’ which always struck me as more acute than the US version. Sergeant Rutledge appeared in two guises, both of which highlighted the Black soldier. One uses the title Le Sergent noir and the other Capitaine Buffalo (this is the Belgian poster with the Flemish title listed as well).
Captain Buffalo was in fact the working title of the film in Hollywood and the film opens with the Captain Buffalo song. The reference here is to ‘Negro soldiers’ who were known as ‘Buffalo soldiers’. The name is said to have come from the Native Americans who fought Black soldiers in the Indian Wars after 1866. Although the name was commonly used in the US Army, it didn’t circulate quite so widely in the mythology of the Hollywood Western. Although I have been reading and watching Westerns on TV and at the cinema since the 1950s, I don’t think I heard the term until the 1970s and it was really Bob Marley’s song, released in 1983, which popularised the history outside the US. ‘Captain Buffalo’ is an ironic title, referring to Rutledge’s leadership qualities in a troop which was ‘all Negro’ but with a white officer. The French poster is more explicit in its reference to the ‘Black Sergeant’ and both posters announce the controversial elements for a film from 1960 – the Black fist in handcuffs and the frightened white woman seemingly running from the sergeant – depicted in ‘noirish’ lighting. Compare this explicit representation with the UK ‘quad’ poster, which I believe was based on the US poster (UK posters have generally been ‘landscape’ rather than ‘portrait’ shaped).
This poster tells us nothing about the story as such. Rutledge is simply ‘a MAN’ and Woody Strode is listed as a secondary star to Billie Burke (who has a minor role as the judge’s wife). The sergeant in the poster has a skin tone very similar to Hunter’s Lt. Cantrell – you have to look closely for signs of ‘blackness’. Why is he shown with unfastened handcuffs? The contrast to the French poster is remarkable. Sergeant Rutledge was a commercial flop despite its similarity to The Searchers in terms of setting. It was based on a novel by James Warner Bellah whose short stories had formed the basis for Ford’s earlier ‘Cavalry trilogy’ of the late 1940s – She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache and Rio Grande. He would also write the screenplay for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the best reviewed of Ford’s later works. Why did Sergeant Rutledge flop? I can’t help feeling that besides the lack of confidence shown by Warner Bros. in their promotional material, the film’s uneasy mixture of drama, suspense and comedy might have created poor ‘word of mouth’. Comedy is nearly always present in Ford’s films but it is usually better integrated in relation to the drama. I wonder too if the film suffers from the lack of a strong central performance from John Wayne or one of Ford’s other familiar leading men. Willis Bouchey as the Colonel and courtroom judge is a good character actor, but doesn’t dominate the group of officers who run the trial. It’s no surprise that the action sequences with Jeffery Hunter and Woody Strode holding the action together work more successfully. It wasn’t until after the screening that I realised that Constance Towers had been in Ford’s previous film The Horse Soldiers, the 1959 cavalry picture set during the Civil War and not written by Bellah. In Sergeant Rutledge she seems to be older (or perhaps more mature) than the young women linked to the young officers in the earlier cavalry films, but on reflection she seems well cast. Later she would appear as the lead in two strong Sam Fuller films, Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964).
As well as a film of its time, indeed of its ‘moment’, Sergeant Rutledge has to be read as a film in the final third of John Ford’s long career. One aspect of this is its role in confirming Ford’s long attachment to the ideals of the American military. It is important that the Rutledge character is finally exonerated by the Army and through the Army’s procedures. It may be the last such film in Ford’s list. The last few films seem to offer evidence of a director either being deliberately playful with some of those traditions among groups of men. The second aspect of Sergeant Rutledge is more problematic in representing Ford’s ideas about race and identity. I think the film stands up alongside The Searchers as an attempt to question the attitudes in most Westerns of the 1950s, but I don’t think it’s possible to make any judgements without referring back to Ford’s earlier films about Judge Priest, and especially The Sun Shines Bright (1953) which needs to be my next task. It also requires a return to Two Rode Together (1961) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964), two films which revert to the practice of casting Europeans as Native Americans, while still questioning representations.
Denial is a strange film – a star-laden ‘independent film’, conventional in style and approach but with an intriguing mix of genre elements. Always engaging and involving it certainly delivers for audiences while being dismissed by some mainstream critics. Its release in the UK at the end of the first week of the Trump presidency proved timely as it offers an opportunity to explore concepts of ‘historical truth’ and the difficulty of ‘proving’ it in a court of law.
Denial is another ‘based on a true story’ narrative. It follows the legal proceedings set in train by the British ‘historian’ David Irving who alleged damage to his reputation caused by published statements by the American academic scholar Deborah Lipstadt in her book Denying the Holocaust (1993). Under English law, a libel action such as this is heard in the High Court and the onus of proof is on the defendants (in this case Ms Lipstadt and her publishers Penguin Books). The danger of defending the action was that Irving, a notorious right-wing Holocaust denier, would get the chance in court to expound on his own views and attack the statements of defence witnesses. In many cases libel actions are ‘settled’ out of court but would this be acceptable/advisable in this case. Deborah Lipstadt decided to fight and the film narrative is based on her book about the case.
The production did not have major studio backing but the three US and UK companies did receive support from BBC Films in the UK. In the US the film was released by the independent Bleeker Street but in the UK it is an eOne release, i.e. from one of the two ‘mini-majors’ (eOne is a Canadian-US-European multinational). The film’s cast boasts four central performances from acclaimed actors. Rachel Weisz plays Deborah Lipstadt, Tom Wilkinson plays her barrister Richard Rampton and Timothy Spall plays David Irving. All three are very good and deliver the performances their reputations suggest. But for me the standout, in a smaller role, is Andrew Scott as Anthony Julius, the solicitor who Lipstadt turns to first. Irish actor Scott is currently being feted for his Hamlet at the Almeida in London and his performance in the difficult role of Julius is very impressive. David Hare adapted Lipstadt’s narrative (the courtroom dialogue is taken from the court transcript). Hare is a distinguished British playwright who is also well-known for his screenplays and for his films as a director. I haven’t seen much of his recent work but I remember his 1980s films such as Paris By Night (1988) and Plenty (1985) (directed by Fred Schepisi, written by Hare from his own play). I thought both films struggled to utilise the powers of their leads (Charlotte Rampling and Meryl Streep respectively). Rachel Weisz does better in this new film. Denial is directed by Mick Jackson. I was surprised to find that back in the 1980s Jackson directed the Barry Hines scripted Threads (1984) – one of the great British TV films about the possible effects of nuclear war. In the 1990s he went to Hollywood and scored with The Bodyguard (1992) with Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner but in 1997 he the disaster movie Volcano proved to be his last cinema film for nearly twenty years (all spent on TV projects). Why did the producers choose Hare and Jackson as a team?
The key to Denial is, I think, the generic mix and how it works with the Holocaust discourse. At the centre of Denial is a courtroom drama with very high stakes. But the film is effectively a drama-doc – a dramatised reconstruction of actual events. So, although the trial is gripping, we know the outcome already and there are no real surprises. The trial was finally held in 2000 by which time the discourse of Holocaust studies/films/books etc. was developing further. Steven Spielberg, whose 1993 film Schindler’s List raised the profile of Holocaust narratives is mentioned in Denial‘s script. The Holocaust narrative in Denial is focused on the dilemma for Lipstadt and her defence team about how they should deal with the emotions and hurt that Irving’s vile outpourings were bound to threaten. The script veers towards making this a conflict between British and American attitudes to the libel case and this in turn means that the narrative must include an explanation for audiences of the crucial difference between English and American law, despite the fact that American law is based on English Common Law principles. (I can’t remember if the script refers to ‘UK law’, but American readers should note that Scottish law is a different beast altogether.) This conflict is neatly symbolised (or ‘heavily signalled’) by a tiny action in which at the beginning of the trial Deborah Lipstadt refuses to bow to the presiding judge when the trial begins, but at the end of the trial seems to have become ‘anglicised’ and bows like everyone else. I’m not sure how much patience American audiences will have for this narrative, but for me it was the most interesting part of the film. The emotion is carried partly by the existence of Holocaust survivors who the defence team, to Lipstadt’s dismay, are reluctant to use in court. For narrative convenience, only one such survivor is singled out (played by Harriet Walter, one of several well-known British actors playing smaller roles.) Rampton must refute Irving’s claims by conducting a case which shows evidence that buildings in Auschwitz were used to gas Jewish (and other) inmates of the concentration camp. This isn’t straightforward.
The potential Anglo-American split is also played out in the relationship between Lipstadt and Richard Rampton. Wilkinson’s Rampton is initially seen by Lipstadt as cold, detached and lacking compassion. There is no suggestion of any kind of romance between the two but the script displays what might be thought of as tropes of a romance narrative as Rampton visits his client’s room with a bottle of wine and she seeks him out in a café. Part of the conflict revolves around the social class distinctions of the English legal profession and alongside the emotional questions this is brought out first on a trip to Auschwitz which, as Rampton himself points out, is not for “memorialising” but for forensics – it is a crime scene and he must prove what happened.
Denial has done steady but not spectacular business for a narrative of this kind in the UK, making £730,000 in five weeks. I suspect it appeals mainly to older audiences and that it will find a wider audience on TV, where its star names will attract viewers who will be rewarded by the script and performances. As a cinema film it does feel a little ‘clunky’ but in truth Mick Jackson has only limited opportunities for visual display. He focuses on a foggy Auschwitz visit with some success but primarily this is about skilled actors and a highly literate script delivered in meeting rooms and Kingston County Hall masquerading as the High Court on the Strand.