The second of my two archive screenings featuring films with female editors was this 1982 feature by Gaston Kaboré. The editor in question is Andrée Davanture, the French woman who founded a company called Atria in Paris in 1953. After working with several well-known French directors, she later worked with some of the most significant francophone African directors including Souleymane Cissé from Mali, Safi Faye from Senegal and Gaston Kaboré among others (see this website). Beautifully restored by Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique, Wênd Kûuni was projected in Academy (1:1.37) in stunning colour with especially good lighting and grading to produce a range of dark skin tones.
Wênd Kûuni is one of the first of what Manthia Diawara termed ‘return to the source’ films. The earliest Sub-Saharan African films had tended to take a neo-realist approach to contemporary life in the newly established independent francophone states of West Africa. Later this became a more sophisticated historical approach analysing the process of colonisation in the films of Sembène Ousmane, Med Hondo and others. The return to source was an attempt to present African stories from pre-colonial times and to try to find a new aesthetic for a distinctively African cinema. Some directors also saw this approach as a way of avoiding censorship in the difficult days of neo-colonialist rule by new authoritarian leaders.
Kaboré’s film is set during the period of the Mossi kingdoms which lasted for hundreds of years before the French imperialist forces arrived in the Upper Volta region in 1896. (Upper Volta became Burkina Faso in 1984 after the film was released.) The film begins with a woman being told that her husband is missing and she is worried about how she and her son will cope. A transition then moves the story on and a pedlar is riding his donkey through the bush. Hearing a sound, he investigates and finds a boy clearly ailing and exhausted beneath a ragged cloth. He decides to take the boy with him to the next village he intends to visit and there the boy is taken in by a weaver who accepts him into his family – he has a wife and a little girl. The weaver decides to name the boy ‘God’s gift’.
Wend Kuuni recovers after he is fed and watered but he refuses to speak. As he recovers he becomes the family’s shoat (sheep?goats?) herder. Eventually comes the moment when a dispute in the village (concerning the role and behaviour of women) escalates so that Wend Kuuni is himself shocked back into speech. The plotline of the narrative does not contain many dramatic moments but it more than makes up for this with an observation of daily life in the village. I enjoyed the film very much. Following Keith’s comments on Osaka Elegy, I don’t know whether it was a film or digital print but it looked good. Several years after the film’s production in 1995, Gaston Kaboré made the following comment as part of celebrations for the centenary of cinema:
A society daily subjected to foreign images eventually loses its identity and its capacity to forge its own destiny.
The development of Africa implies among other things the production of its own images.
The last film I saw at this year’s Leeds International Film Festival proved to be the best: it had me weeping. Are films that make you so sad that you cry the antithesis of escapism or do they (hopefully) make us feel better about our own lives and so escaping to a worse place makes us feel better? In System Crasher we are taken into the world of Benni (played with astonishing brilliance by Hannah Zengel), a traumatised nine-year-old that even the seemingly robust German social services system cannot contain. Aristotle argued that the purpose of narratives was catharsis: the audience is purged of emotion and so feels satisfied. System Crasher just left me feeling sad but, importantly, empathetic to people with mental health problems and those that try to help them. Watching a wide range of films aids empathy for others, something that our divided times lacks in many instances.
Writer-director Nora Fingscheidt has produced a gripping narrative that sees social workers trying to do their best for Benni; though there is an implicit critique of the use of drugs. Interestingly, the Variety review sees this criticism as divisive and presumably in America there is more belief in pharmacological solutions? There is a moment, early in the film, when Micha (Albrecht Schuch) takes Benni under his wing and they spend three weeks in the woods. I’m sure in an American retelling this sort-of Walden would lead to a resolution; we are in Europe and such sentimentality is thankfully absent from this film. Incidentally, Variety‘s jibe about the film not really blaming anyone, even Benni’s mum, is wide of the mark for there is a heartbreaking scene when the social worker breaks down because of the mother’s uselessness. That said, Fingscheidt does not go for designating anyone as evil; that would be too simplistic. My partner trained as a therapist and worked with disturbed children; she confirmed the utter authenticity of the portrayal of traumatised youngsters. If the film was set in the UK, no doubt, the cuts to social services by the Tory government would have also formed an impediment to helping these children.
If I have one quibble, it’s with the final freeze frame which didn’t, for me, sum up the film; that said, it opens in the UK next week and I strongly recommend it.
The only film I was disappointed by at the festival was Synonyms (Synonymes, France-Israel-Germany, 2019) where a self-indulgent male gets into various situations in Paris. At first it seemed as if it was going to be a critique of Israel, but co-writer and director Nadav Lapid eschews politics, as far as I could tell, and the film becomes a mush where everything disappoints the protagonist.
The quotidian, the everyday, has little purchase in narrative for most of us live it and many, when watching films, want to escape it. Thus narratives that are about love emphasise the extraordinary and ecstasy in romance; however, as is this film shows, everyday love can also be extraordinary. Theorists state that narratives require a disruption to the situation which the text will resolve at the climax and this is true, for the mainstream at least. In Ordinary Love, Joan and Tom’s retired routine is broken by the diagnosis of breast cancer and the film follows their relationship during the treatment. Cancer touches most people, as even people who are fortunate enough to avoid it are likely to know those who are unfortunate. So in this sense the disruption in this film’s narrative is eminently relatable to for all adults though the older you are the more likely you are to identify with the protagonists; their sixtysomethingness also makes it a film about heading toward the twilight of life.
Clearly this narrative is character based and the leads, Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson, are both superb; though extra plaudits to Manville for her bravery in displaying her aged body. Age is often treated with disgust, particularly by those who are younger; it is an Other that few desire but, as I used to point out to pupils who claimed they never want to get old, the alternative is worse. Neeson’s casting is potent as he’s best known these days for EuroCorp’s international thrillers, such as Taken series (2008-14, France-US-Spain), where he plays a male ego ideal who will solve problems with his ‘particular skillset’. In Ordinary Love he is ordinary and so emphasises the powerlessness partners can only feel in the face of such an illness.
Of course as a melodrama the film must use exaggeration for dramatic effect but it does so in a limited way. The use of emblems (symbols) is also restrained (a tropical fish and digging up a path amongst them) and such restraint is appropriate to the ordinariness of the narrative. It was written by Owen McCafferty, his first film, and directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn who made the excellent Good Vibrations (UK-Ireland, 2012) which was set in Belfast. Ordinary Love, too, is set in Ireland though it could happen anywhere.
Another thing I liked about the film was the listing of extras: everyone of them and they fill the screen at the end credits. Credit to everyone on the film.
Every year LIFF puts together an archive strand with a specific theme. In 2019 this was a tribute to ‘Mother Cutter: Women Who Shaped Film’. I saw two features, both introduced by a young woman who I don’t think give her name and there are no credits in the programme. She told us something about the films and provided a brief biography of the editor. Osaka Elegy is a Mizoguchi Kenji female-centred melodrama, edited by Sakane Tazuko. The introduction was useful but it would have been good to say something about the editing approach and perhaps some examples to look out for.
The screening was from an archive print which I assumed was 35mm. It was quite ‘soft’ and a little worn. I note that there are both DVD and Blu-ray discs available, but judging by DVD Beaver’s excellent service, the original print for these was no better than the one we watched. The mid-30s was when Mizoguchi really broke through to commercial success in Japan and this story (which he originated) is a contemporary-set melodrama. At its centre is Ayako (Yamada Isuzu), a switchboard operator at the offices of a pharmaceutical company. Her father has been dismissed from his post at another company, having embezzled the sum of ¥300. Ayako in desperation decides to take up her boss’s offer of an apartment if she will become his mistress. She hopes the money to recover her father’s reputation (and job) will come from him. This simple plot reminds me of a number of other films. The ‘switchboard operator’ is almost iconic of the ‘modern woman’ in the 1930s – and into the 1960s with Dusan Makaveyev’s 1967 Yugoslavian film sometimes known as The Tragedy of the Switchboard Operator. More germane might be the Barbara Stanwyck pre-code film Baby Face (US 1933) in which Ms Stanwyck is a lowly clerk who sleeps her way to the top of the building – literally, since that is the office of the big boss.
But since this is a familiar Mizoguchi narrative about a woman struggling against a patriarchal society, the basic plot is developed into a complex interlocking of male attitudes towards an ‘active’ young woman like Ayako – active in the sense of doing things for other people and for herself in the face of disapproval. There is a young man who might be a suitor and another older man – as well as her father and her brother Hiroshi who needs tuition fees to finish his degree. None of these men seem to care about how their own behaviour will have consequences for her.
The quality of the print did make it difficult to fully appreciate what Mizoguchi and his creative team were able to do with relatively few resources on this shoot. Japan was relatively late to fully adapt to sound production. Mizoguchi had made over 50 films by this time but it was still early days for sound. Also this was one of the films he made for an independent company after several years working at Nikkatsu’s Kyoto studio. Osaka Elegy is a melodrama presented with a sense of realism embodied in the sets and setting and the feel for modernity in 1930s Japan. Miki Minoru was already established as Mizoguchi’s cinematographer and the pair would go to make many more films together. Much of Osaka Elegy was shot using small group compositions framed in long shot with relatively few close-ups. Some compositions in depth are striking and I was intrigued by some of the sets. The apartment which Ayako’s boss rents for her is Western in style and could be an upmarket pad from a Hollywood film of the period. Ayako is dressed in both traditional and modern Western outfits. Like Miki, Yamada Isuzu had already made several films with Mizoguchi and would go on to become one of the greatest Japanese screen actors, working well into the 1980s.
The Japanese title for the film is a reference to the Naniwa Bridge in Osaka. The image above is from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com and gives an idea of what Mizoguchi and Miki might have achieved with better equipment. The bridge was a significant architectural feature of the modernisation of Osaka in the early 20th century (as were the streetcars).
I always enjoy the opportunity to see archive prints at the Hyde Park Picture House. I just wish the prints from 1930s Japan were in better condition. There is a lot to say about Mizoguchi’s work in the mid-1930s and the film merits more attention. I find it difficult to say anything specific about Sakane’s editing of the film, except to note that the film is very short (for a feature) but still says a great deal and transitions smoothly between scenes. Researching details of Sakane’s career I came across a paper on her by Xinyi Zhao on the ‘Women Film Pioneers Project’ website. This is an illuminating read which I urge you to access. The working conditions in Japanese studios in the 1930s meant that an unusual figure like Sakane (from a wealthy family and with early-onset cinephilia developed a strong working relationship with Mizoguchi for whom she started as a dogsbody and eventually became assistant director as well as editor. I expect that she had a considerable input into those female-centred melodramas. She had made her directorial debut in 1936 with a period drama New Year’s Finery at the same small studio where she worked with Mizoguchi. This made her the first Japanese woman to direct a film. The male critics savaged the film and she didn’t get the opportunity to make another and she returned to Mizoguchi’s production unit. The late 1930s militarism and imperial expansionism meant that her only chance of advancement was to embrace imperial policies in Manchuko and become a director of colonialist documentaries. This then caused problems for her attempting to return to the commercial Japanese film industry after 1945. I’m sure there is much more to discover about this remarkable woman.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this first feature by writer-director Kim Bora. Like the other recent South Korean film by a woman, The House of Us by Yoon Ga-eun, which I saw at the London Film Festival, House of Hummingbird is a potential family melodrama that evolves more into the story of a young teenage girl. Nick saw the film at the London Fest and was a little disappointed. I was pleasantly surprised.
Eun-hee, the central character is an eight grader in middle school which makes her around 14 in the Korean system I think (and therefore three years older than the girl in House of Us). She isn’t enjoying school and her slightly older siblings, both still at school, are not very friendly towards her. Her father runs a food shop specialising in rice products and works long hours and her mother seems rather distracted when not preparing food for the family. The year is 1994 and Eun-hee ignores the first two major events of the year – the Northern leader Kim Il-sung dies and South Korea play in the World Cup in the US. This is in contrast to the third major event which affects her very badly – but more of that later.
The film is slow-paced and perhaps over-long (138 minutes) for a narrative with relatively little narrative incident. But this does mean that we get to know Eun-hee in some depth. During the two semesters of her school year she has her first boyfriend, two separate relationships with girls in her class/year and a medical issue. As in most ‘real lives’ none of these three interactions come to much but Eun-hee does learn something about each of them and about herself. Certainly she gets more from meeting her friends than she gets from the members of her family. The context of a rapidly industrialising Korean society, now over the politically fraught times of the 1980s, is sketched in carefully. The building boom leads to a protest near her home by residents who refuse to move for re-development. At school the pressure for education attainment is being ratcheted up. Eun-hee’s terrifying teacher has the class chanting about going to university and not visiting karaoke bars. It reminded me of the worst excesses of our local girls’ school which forbade girls going out in the evening. Ironically, it is one of the elements of this new high pressure educational culture that offers Eun-hee hope of something more fulfilling.
Eun-hee attends an after school Chinese ‘cramming class’ with her friend. One day the usual teacher is replaced by a woman in her early thirties, a mature student at the university. This is Yong-ji (Kim Sae-byeok) who seems both approachable and laid-back – calm and almost zen-like. Eun-hee is smitten. Yong-ji provides support when it is needed, making tea and offering advice. Eun-hee brightens considerably and in that way that perspectives change so quickly at 14, she sees herself becoming a cartoonist (or rather a graphic artist). Yong-ji is an attractive character but she also carries a sense of fragility and I was worried immediately that something might happen to her – and that’s where the third news incident comes in.
Reading through various reviews, the film receives praise for its clear-eyed view of life for a young girl in Seoul in 1994. But the descriptions vary. For some Eun-hee’s life is bleak and the family is dysfunctional. There are indeed some family tragedies and two incidents that suggest that Eun-hee is not being cared for or supported as she should be. There is domestic violence and the medical condition she develops is handled badly by the family. But I’m not sure how we are meant to read these incidents. Are they a critique of 1990s Korean society? Father appears to be over-worked and the few occasions when the family help out in the shop seem like genuine moments of co-operation. Perhaps the narrative is simply giving us Eun-hee’s perspective on what happens to her in 1994? If the film had been half an hour shorter and more tightly edited, I wonder if this would be seen as European-style ‘social realism’? The Korean audience seems to have found the film interesting as it earned nearly $1 million from its 154 screen opening in the country to go alongside its journey through many overseas film festivals. The film is described by critics (and the director) as a ‘coming of age’ film. But it certainly isn’t a genre film. Coming of age is not a useful term. Some of us don’t ‘come of age’ until we are in our 20s. Instead it is a growing up film about a particular year.
In the interview below from the Busan festival, the director explains why she chose the title (it makes total sense to me now and I’m kicking myself that I didn’t work it out before). If this gets a release in the UK I would recommend it.
‘Moffie’ is the standard homophobic term of abuse in South Africa, apparently across various languages. This film has been described as a ‘queer war movie’. In 1981 what the South African authorities described as the ‘Border War’ was in operation along the boundary separating the former ‘South-West Africa’ from Angola. (Many of us outside South Africa thought of it as a ‘Liberation War’ on behalf of SWAPO – the South West Africa People’s Organisation.) Conscription in South Africa meant every young man over 16 was subject to 2 years National Service. Nicholas Van der Swart has an Afrikaans name courtesy of his stepfather, but his biological father is an English-speaking South African. He finds himself in a predominantly Afrikaans intake for basic training.
The basic military training of raw conscripts is a familiar narrative in film cultures across the world. It always has an element of brutality, often via the figure of the Sergeant-Major or equivalent. Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is perhaps the best-known example, but there are many others. I’ve seen a few but none quite so foul and repulsive as the treatment handed out to the young men here. It’s a brutality delivered with constant swearing and sexist and homophobic insults. The conscripts are duped into thinking that they are fighting to protect the women and children of South Africa from the ‘blacks’, the communists and the threat of homosexuality (illegal in apartheid SA). Two conscripts found in the same toilet cubicle together are treated harshly with terrible outcomes. Nicholas defends himself in the intense testosterone-filled Afrikaner barracks, but he is spotted by another gay conscript. We learn about Nick’s earlier teenage years in a flashback and are prepared for what might happen as basic training continues.
There are only two direct contacts between the conscripts and black Africans. One is treated in a vile way, the other is an enemy soldier. I can’t remember if it was a line of dialogue or something I read in a review but I was struck by the observation that however evil the apartheid regime was in its treatment of black Africans, at least it wasn’t illegal to be a black African (but it was illegal to be in the wrong place). It was illegal to be gay and the psychiatrists of the South African Defence Force (like the Israeli Defence Force, quite happy to be offensive and cross into other countries) were prepared to use any methods to ‘convert’ young gay men.
This the fourth feature by writer-director Olivier Hermanus. One of the first three films, Beauty (2011), also had a gay theme and did get a UK release by the LGBTQ specialist distributor Peccadillo Pictures. Moffie is a UK co-production but so far doesn’t seem to have a UK distribution deal. It certainly deserves one. The script for this film was adapted from an autobiographical novel by André Carl van der Merwe. The adaptation produces a confident, disciplined piece of filmmaking with a stunning central performance by Kai Luke Brummer in the central role. Many of the other young men in the cast are non-professionals. The photography by Jamie D. Ramsay is equally impressive, especially since the film appears to have been shot entirely in Western Cape Province. The restrained score by Braam du Toit also includes some local pop material including an allusion to the ‘Sugar Man’ phenomenon in the country and a local version of the Isley Brothers ‘Summer Breeze’ during the flashback sequence to Nick’s early teens.
Once the basic training comes to an end, the brutal treatment of the conscript becomes less pronounced, though it is still there and increasingly insidious. Ramsay’s camera becomes more lyrical in presenting the bodies of the young men, often naked in the showers or skinny dipping en masse. In one scene they play volleyball bare-chested and in shorts and, reading reviews, I see that I wasn’t the only one to recognise what seems to be an hommage to Beau Travail (France 1999), the Claire Denis film about another set of gay relationships in a colonial army in Africa (the French Foreign Legion in Djibouti). These scenes are indicative of one of the great strengths of the film. Here is Jonathan Romney from his Screendaily Review commenting on the changing depiction after the earlier brutality:
That Hermanus is able, subsequently, to portray these young white men as human, vulnerable, even sympathetic, is a sign of the moral seriousness and subtlety of his approach.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative but I will say that the film does not have a conventional resolution. IMdB suggests that the film involves ‘War. Romance. Drama’. I think calling what Nick experiences ‘romance’ is misleading. Sensitivity, emotional bonding, loyalty certainly and desire for intimacy definitely but many of these young white men were traumatised and scarred by their experiences in the SAFD. Thirty years on they still find it difficult to process. All of this means that the film might struggle to find audiences outside South Africa, but I hope not.
This is a major achievement for a black filmmaker from South Africa who has made an important social statement as well as one of the best films of the year. If you get the chance, do go and see it. It opens in South Africa in 2020 and is still visiting festivals like Leeds.