Akasha or aKasha (the ’round-up’) is a gentle comedy about young men and women in the midst of the long-running civil war in Sudan. Writer-director Hajooj Kuka won prizes for his documentary feature Beats of the Antonov (2014) and this feature returns him to the same conflict with the same backing from South African production company Big World Cinema (which also backed Rafiki from Kenya). Big World Cinema has been effective in getting films from across Africa into major international festivals and this one appeared at Venice, Toronto and London in 2018. We watched the film as part of Black History Month at the same venue where we saw Beats of the Antonov back in July. Again there were members of the local Sudanese community in Bradford in the audience. This time they were nearly all women which makes me wonder if the men knew something about the film. One of the features of the earlier film was the director’s interest in the culture of the young women in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions of Sudan, fighting against the regime in Khartoum.
The film begins with a pre-credit scene in which we learn that the civil war has a forced ‘time out’ during the rainy season when the churned-up mud tracks make movement difficult. The soldiers in the rebel army are given time off to help their families. The ’round-up’ then begins to bring the soldiers back for the next round of action and the film’s narrative follows two young men who attempt to avoid being called back. We first discover Adnan (Kamal Ramadan) in bed with his girlfriend Lina (Ekram Marcus) but when she sees another woman’s name carved onto the stock of Adnan’s AK-47 she throws him out, believing he has been sleeping around. Adnan finds himself outside the compound without his gun and without a belt to hold up his uniform trousers. But he does come across Absi (Ganja Chakado), a city boy who has so far avoided a call-up. The two bond quickly and hatch a plan to retrieve the gun and to avoid the local commander Kuku Blues (Abdallah Alnur) who is already hauling young men back into uniform. The plan involves dressing as local women. Meanwhile the young women in the village are preparing for a wedding. Those are the ingredients of the plot with ample opportunities for jokes and sight gags.
Most of the gags are basic and universally accessible but Hajooj Kuka sets out to satirise the military pretensions of the men and to boost both the intelligence and the wit of the young women. A couple of carefully placed objects (a copy of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and a poster of Angela Davis and other Black leaders) suggest that Lina is far more aware than Adnan who will later have to eat humble pie when his ‘warrior’ status is revealed as a sham.
Hajooj Kuka was initially known for his camerawork and with his cinematographer Giovanni P. Autran he creates some attractive landscapes around the village and into the hills. With characters often seen in long shot moving through the landscape (including chase sequences) the film seems to refer back to quite a few of the internationally-distributed West African films of the 1970s and 1980s. At one point Absi borrows a motorbike and I wondered if the resulting images were a nod to Touki Bouki (Senegal 1973). Closer examination shows the bike to be a Chinese model from Senke. A little later, Adnan sets off for the hills and has an ‘experience’ with hallucinogenic flowerheads. Jokes about ‘stoners’ and dope smoking are told by Kuku Blues, possibly in order to demonstrate his ‘hipness’ – but readings like this are dependent on subtitling. I wondered if this too was a nod towards the ‘Return to Source’ African films of the 1980s. Mostly though the film is a gentle comedy that makes some interesting social comments on gender identity and modern culture for young black Sudanese men and women. The Civil War is currently on hold after the dictator was deposed in April 2019 and peace talks with the new regime are underway. It would be good to think that films like this in future can focus on the comedy (and the music) without worrying about the recall to arms.
Border offers all kinds of challenges to the average film fan. It also challenges anyone who wants to write about it without spoilers. On this basis I’ll just offer clues without being explicit. The original idea is taken from a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the Swedish fantasy author who became an international name with the publication of his novel Let the Right One in 2004 and its subsequent adaptation as both a Swedish film in 2008 (and then a US film) and an English-language stage production in 2013. The story, Gräns, was first published in Sweden in 2006 and the final script for the film was written by director Ali Abbasi, and Isabella Eklöf (whose new film as director is released in the UK soon). Fans of Lindqvist’s stories will know what to expect from Border, though I understand there are some additions to the literary narrative. Ali Abbasi is an Iranian who has lived in Sweden and now Denmark. His previous film, Shelley (Denmark 2017) suggests he might have pushed Lindqvist’s script in specific directions. The fact that he is a migrant may also be significant.
Tina (Eva Malender) is a customs official – a ‘border guard’ – at the ferry port of Kapellskär on the Baltic coast, north of Stockholm. Ferries come from Åland, Finland and Estonia. Tina has an unusual ability to ‘sniff out’ contraband. She may also have other unusual abilities to go with her appearance. These include a close affinity with wild animals and with the whole ecology of her forest home. Rather than me describing Tina, just look at her image and make up your own mind what her life might have been like up until now. She lives with a man who trains and ‘shows’ dogs, but her relationship seems not to be physical. Her only other contact is with her father who is in a care home. Work is the only part of her life which gives her satisfaction, partly because her special talent is appreciated by co-workers. One day she stops a man and discovers something which starts a criminal investigation in which she takes an active role. On another occasion she stops a man who turns out to share some of her own characteristics. She won’t be able to stop herself finding out more about Vore (Eero Milinoff). I won’t say any more except that the script manages to bring together three potential narratives. Tina and Vore must discover each other, Tina must discover herself (who or what is she?) and the criminal investigation must be resolved. Any understanding of her actions must also contend with Nordic folk tales.
Border manages to resolve all three narrative questions for me. I don’t want to make direct comparisons with Let the Right One In because that film seemed to me a unique film from a precise moment. Border does something slightly different and ‘fits’ another moment when film culture generally is focused on both gender and ecology as well as questions about migrants moving across physical ‘borders’. The acting performances of Eval Malender and Eero Milinoff are very good, especially given the make-up/prostheses they have to wear. I’ve seen Melander in other films but of course she was unrecognisable as Tina. Tina’s father is an interesting character. His role, as in many Swedish films, references the care system. He also represents a man from an earlier generation with a grown-up daughter – an important figure in different ways in the novels and film adaptations of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson. Border seems to me a Nordic narrative with strong metaphorical references. It seems to have worked well with audiences and suggests that Nordic cinema still has much to offer. I watched the film on MUBI. I believe it is now available on other VOD services in the UK.
The short UK trailer:
This was the film that bowled me over at LFF – and I clearly wasn’t alone, I could feel how much the audience were behind the film. It’s not surprising that we should all feel sympathetic towards the central character Arianna, a young woman of 20 who doesn’t understand why she has difficulty feeling and behaving like her female friends and acquaintances. She does tell us why she is this way in a voiceover that accompanies the credits but I conveniently forgot about what she said and handed myself over to the narrative constructed by début director Carlo Lavagna. Lavagna and his star Ondina Quadri were present for a Q&A in which we learned that Lavagna had spent a long time in the US researching the science and sociology behind Arianna’s condition and that for some time he envisaged making a documentary. Eventually he realised that his ideas would work best as a feature and he and his producer struggled for several years to raise sufficient funds, losing their original lead actor (who became too old for the part). Ondina Quadri was cast as an inexperienced and reluctant actor and it is amazing that she and her director have produced such an affecting film.
The film narrative is set mainly during the summer vacation in which Arianna and her parents return to their villa by a lake in Tuscany. She was last there in her childhood and there are local people still there who were her friends and neighbours years ago. There is a sense that her parents have kept her away from the area up till now and that they are watching her and monitoring her interaction with others. Her father is a doctor and gradually we realise that Arianna is taking some form of hormone treatment delivered through the patches she places on her stomach. There are several scenes in which she studies her own body and frets about the slow growth of her breasts and how sore they are after the hormone treatment. Her younger neighbour is a painful source of comparison – a beautiful young woman with an attractive body.
At first the country house setting suggests a ‘coming of age’ type story familiar from numerous European art films but gradually an element of the thriller/puzzle investigation takes over as Arianna finds clues to what might have happened to her as an infant. When her parents need to return to the city Arianna persuades them to let her stay on, ostensibly to study. Free to explore and to think, Arianna invites a fellow student to stay and also her neighbour and her boyfriend. This proves to be a key moment in Arianna’s rediscovery of her sexual identity and coupled with her visit to a local therapy group discussing sexual identity and sexual health it pushes her to find out the truth that her parents have kept from her.
This film works because of the director’s sensitivity, the brave performance by Ondina Quadri and the cinematography by Hélène Louvart who I now realise has worked on several of the films I have admired and who appears to specialise in photographing young non-professionals (see The Wonders and When I Saw You amongst others). It’s a film with a non-purient interest in the sexuality of young people which is depicted openly. Perhaps some audiences might be offended by this openness but it feels to me like a genuine attempt to explore and understand important questions about identity.
I’ve seen several excellent Italian films at festivals over the years and it’s disappointing that so many of them either don’t get a UK release or when they do appear it is so fleeting that they make little impact. In a review from the Venice Film Festival for Variety, Guy Lodge gives a cool professional appraisal of the film (which I mostly wouldn’t argue with) in which he suggests that though films about ‘alternative genre identity’ are popular at the moment, Arianna is likely to “find a particularly welcoming niche in gender-themed and LGBTQ fest programmes”. It seems a shame to relegate a film to a niche when wider audiences might well enjoy it. Its relatively short running time (83 minutes) might make it a more difficult sell for some distributors but I hope it gets a chance and if it turns up on TV it might well find those appreciative audiences.
The first of Céline Sciamma’s trilogy about teenage girls is in some ways the most hard-hitting, primarily because it is the least contextualised in terms of family and setting. All three films deal with an isolated teenage girl who is in some ways attracted into a ‘community’ or a set of relationships. In the second of the trilogy, Tomboy (2011), questions of gender and identity are approached with more circumspection and the ‘issue’ is set partly in a family context. In the third film, Girlhood, the sociology of the lead character’s situation is laid out in more detail. The ‘water lilies’ of the title are the teams of young female synchronised swimmers based in a pool in Ile de France (the same outer suburbs, where the director grew up, that appear in Tomboy). The central character is Marie (Pauline Acquart) a skinny young girl who is attractive but appears younger than her close friend Anne (Louise Blachère). Anne, one of the swimmers, is chasing boys but Marie is fascinated by the girls in the pool and in particular the tall and glamorous captain of the senior team, Floriane (Adèle Haenel). Floriane seems to revel in her reputation as a ‘slag’ (or ‘slut’ – not sure about the accuracy of the subtitles, the terms have slightly different meanings in British English)) and the other girls assume that she is regularly sleeping with the local boys. But is she? Marie seems quite prepared to join the team in order to find out. Does she know that this may offend Anne? Both Anne and Floriane are chasing the same boy.
Water Lilies is a film about hormones and teenage angst. The (‘mature’) female audience members I watched it with were reminded of the agonies of teenage life but didn’t really take to the film. For my part, as a mystified middle-aged male, I found the film fascinating in terms of the single-mindedness and bravery of Marie in seeking what she wanted. I think Céline Sciamma is a major talent and I’m trying to think of an American or British film that comes anywhere near the directness and acute observation of this trilogy. I suppose Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen (US 2003) gets somewhere near but most of the leading British female directors (Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay, Clio Barnard) tend to focus as much on boys as girls and I can’t immediately think of films that focus on teenage girls en masse in quite the same way. Reading through IMDB comments on the film, Sofia Coppola’s name comes up but arguably the strongest films presenting younger teenage girls are Fucking Åmål (Show Me Love, Sweden 1998) and We Are the Best! (Sweden 2013) by Lukas Moodysson (helped on the latter by his partner’s script).
Unlike in Tomboy there are virtually no parents seen in Water Lilies and the three girls seem to come and go as they please (I assume it is the summer holiday season). The lack of parents/family (no awkward siblings) is perhaps simply part of the minimalism of the film. There are few of the other trappings of the youth picture (no pop songs, clashes with ‘authority’, cultural differences expressed through food/drink/teen slang etc.). In an interview (now not accessible) Céline Sciamma explains that the focus on just the girls was deliberate – forcing the viewer to identify with 15 year-old girls and how they see the world. During the promotional period for the film at festivals Sciamma outed herself and this film could be categorised as part of lesbian cinema. However, it seemed to me that the questions of gender identity it raises are just as mixed as they are in Tomboy. The focus on long sequences in the pool and in the showers offer a mise en scène that is clammy, overheated and loaded with metaphors for sexual congress (something shared with a number of other ‘pool-based’ films, including Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End). It would be interesting to know how many teachers have thought about using this film with 15 year-old students to stimulate discussion around gender identity. I suspect that many might be worried by the direct approach. For me there is nothing prurient about this film (though I guess going by the dictionary definition of the word it would be possible to argue that there is). What would be useful to discuss is the difference between those films that use the girls’ changing room as the site of excitement for the male gaze (the Porky’s films from the 1980s and perhaps De Palma’s Carrie) and this film (and a film featuring boys in a similar situation like if . . . .) which see the changing room and the showers as a site for personal discoveries about sexual identity. The image of Marie above reminds me of Sister Ruth spying on Sister Clodagh in Black Narcissus (UK 1947).
Reading comments on the film, I’m taken by the number of young people who enjoy the film and take it for what it is. Some of them suggest that they like the music. I didn’t notice it so that probably proves that it is appropriate for a youth picture.
The trailer for the film is useful in conveying the setting but distorts the narrative by focusing solely on one relationship. The sequences featuring the third character Anne are important too: