Tagged: music in film

¡Viva! 26 #4: Esto no es Berlín (This Is Not Berlin, Mexico 2019)

From left: Carlos, Gera and Rita

This Is Not Berlin is a stylish and exciting picture set in Mexico City around the time of the 1986 World Cup and shot in ‘Scope with a strong music soundtrack. It focuses primarily on two families with 17 year-old sons at a local high school. At first I thought it might be a conventional youth picture/teen movie. As the narrative begins Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León) appears to be in a dazed state in the midst of a pitched battle between two local high schools. In the next few scenes his taste in music is mocked by his mates. He is with his best friend Gera (José Antonio Toledano) when they come across Gera’s 18 year-old sister Rita (Ximena Romo) and her boyfriend kissing passionately. Next morning Gera is renting out his father’s girlie magazines to his classmates. It’s not long, however, before the narrative develops a rather different feel. Carlos clearly has his eye on Rita but she ignores him until she discovers his electronics skills. When he is able to fix the electronic keyboard used by the band in which Rita is the singer, he and Gera are invited to a performance at Azteca, a new underground club. This proves to be a real eye-opener for Carlos. He is introduced to new music, performance art, new drugs and a developing LGBTQ scene.

This is the fourth feature by director Hari Sama. His career has involved an equal interest in film and music and many of his projects seem to have been autobiographical in some way. He was born in 1967 so This Is Not Berlin has been taken as drawing on his experiences in the mid-1980s. As several reviewers have noted, what he offers is a fairly objective view of young people searching for an identity at a specific time in Mexico. According to this interesting review by Alistair Ryder for ‘Gay Essential website, Sama identifies as ‘queer (but not as gay’). What Sama can clearly represent is a mixture of 80s music and performance art that even someone like me, with not much interest in either, can find engaging and exciting. Carlos is attracted in particular to the art created by photographer Nico, but is he ready for Nico’s sexual advances? Carlos is a very attractive young man and also very creative. It’s not long before he is accepted by Nico’s group and becomes part of the stunts they organise – including a performance piece opposing the homophobia of football – in the midst of the World Cup. But the more Carlos (or ‘Charly’ as Nico calls him) becomes involved, the more he moves away from Gera and his schoolfriends – and his family.

Carlos and Gera chilling out

The film is also a family melodrama. In fact it is a genuine hybrid, mixing several repertoires. I’ve read various reviews, mostly from the Sundance screenings of the film early in 2019 (it was picked up by Samuel Goldwyn Films and released in the US in August 2019). Many discuss the music, the queer discourse and the ‘coming of age’ narrative, but few mention the family, especially in relation to social class. The two families seem to me to belong to a ‘European’ middle class living in the outer commuter belt of Mexico City. Sama in the Press Notes tells us this is meant to be Lomas Verdes (‘Green Hills’). Wikipedia tells me this is 7 miles from the centre and describes it as ‘upper middle class’. But this puzzles me. Two well-known films that have something in common with This Is Not Berlin are Roma (2018) and Y tu mamá también (2001), but in both these cases the families have live-in servants, usually mestizos or indigenous people. Sama’s two families don’t have servants as far as I can remember. He describes them in the notes as “broken families, conservative and dysfunctional”. Carlos lives in what seems a relatively small house with his mother Carolina (played by a criminally under-used Marina de Tavira, the mother in Roma) and his much younger brother. Carolina seems severely depressed and possibly dependent on prescription drugs. We don’t learn much about Gera’s parents until the final scenes. Sama argues that the youth of these families in effect found a family ‘on the streets’ and eventually in the ‘post-punk’ underground. They were the children of parents who had experienced the political upheavals of 1968 and the early 1970s (the focus in Roma). 

The focus on music in This Is Not Berlin links it to Y tu mamá también, but that is a film that looks outward from Mexico City to explore a ‘national metaphor’ and to encounter the mestizo and indigenous peoples of the South West. The only direct contact, as I remember in This Is Not Berlin, between the middle class European youth and the ‘other’ Mexicans, is at an outdoor concert (much like the entertainments in Roma) on waste ground where Rita’s band plays and the hostile crowd are not interested in the ‘post-punk’ synth-based music. The local band (of mestizos?) sport mohicans and play music more recognisably ‘punk’ in the UK sense. I should also point out that the film opens with a quote from Proust and the film’s title comes from a comment, a put-down of Nico, in a brief but telling political argument in which Nico is accused of just imitating European art movements. You are not a true artist he is told. The politics go further, Nico’s friends are accused of “just partying” all the time with AIDS spreading while they take no notice.

Carlos as a naked slave in a street protest by Nico’s performance art group

The music genre question also permeates the family melodrama. Hari Sama has a small role himself as Carlos’ uncle, his mother’s brother. He wears leathers and rides a motor-bike and his musical taste appears to have developed through listening to old blues guys like Lightning Hopkins, whose more melodic guitar playing seems to have influenced Carlos in turn. The uncle also turns out to be the engineer who encourages Carlos to develop his talents and think of electronics engineering as something to pursue. Early on in the film Gera scoffs at Carlos for playing a track and praising the guitarwork which Gera dismisses as ‘country’. Meanwhile Rita identifies herself with Patti Smith’s poetry in a school literature class. There have been criticisms of This Is Not Berlin because it doesn’t have a strong narrative drive. This is odd, since at one point I thought the structure was becoming too conventional and I was concerned about how the eventual ‘high life’ that Carlos was pursuing would eventually come crashing down. I won’t spoil the narrative resolution and I did eventually come to appreciate the mix of cultural and political issues in the film. Having said that, I think it is the case that the film raises too many narrative possibilities that can’t all be pursued. But better too many than missing some out altogether?

Much of the impact of the film depends on the cinematography by Alfredo Altamirano which manages to create a variety of moods through fluid movement as well as close-up work and the use of various devices to create textures. Altamarino does not appear to have a long list of feature credits but he is very experienced in shorts and commercials and his work has been featured at many festivals. He has some interesting promo reels on his website here. Overall it is the combination of music, camerawork and art direction – all the creative units – as well as the performances that present this evocation of a period.

This film seems to be destined primarily for streaming, which is a shame as it would be a wow on a big screen. I note that IMDb records a US rating of TV-MA which I understand is a rating for cable TV and streaming? There is a significant amount of nudity (much of it male nudity ) in the film and it’s interesting that this hasn’t stopped the film’s US release. It was due to feature in the BFI’s Flare LGBTQ festival which has had to be postponed. I hope that it will get a UK release of some kind. There are already three other Mexican films available with links that might encourage analysis and further study. As well as the two mentioned above, I would add Güeros (2014) as another film about youth, music and ‘protest’ set in 1999, but harking back to New Wave styles.

To Joy (Till glädje, Sweden 1950)

Conductor Sönderby (Victor Sjöström) with Marta (Maj-Britt Nilsson) and Stig (Stig Olin)

This is the second film in which Ingmar Bergman directs from his own original script (following Prison, 1949) without any other writers involved. Once again the script features a flashback, this time a long flashback that follows a decisive moment and gradually leads back to it. The film’s title perhaps refers to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and the ‘Ode to Joy’ in the final movement which is being rehearsed by an orchestra in Helsingborg, as the film opens. The performance of the same piece then closes the narrative. When the flashback occurs it takes us back several years to when Stig (Stig Olin), a young man with ambitions to be a violin soloist, and Marta (Maj-Britt Nilsson) have just joined the orchestra, she as the lone woman violinist. The orchestra is led by Sönderby (Victor Sjöström), who is frustrated by the day’s rehearsal and the lack of progress.

Stig meets Marcel (Birger Malmsten), the orchestra player with the spiv moustache

As we might expect, Stig and Marta are going to get together and will eventually marry. The main part of the narrative will focus on their difficult relationship. Sönderby acts like a surrogate father to the couple, visiting them at key moments at home and providing a sounding board or a wall against which Stig can bash his ego. There are only three other significant players, Birger Malmsten, another Bergman favourite, turns up as a rather smooth member of the orchestra with a spiv’s moustache, always mocking Stig. A young woman Nelly and her much older husband Mikael also befriend Stig.

Mikael (John Ekman) consoles Stig

If this makes the film sound dull in visual terms, I hasten to confirm that it is lensed by the great Gunnar Fischer who offers a number of rich compositions. Helsingborg is on the coast of north-west Scania with Denmark a few miles across the water. Stig and Marta live by the sea at one point. There are train journeys and a wedding in the Town Hall. As well as the central importance of Beethoven’s 9th, the orchestra and Stig at various points play Mendelssohn, Mozart and Smetana.

I was tempted to write that this Bergman narrative seems more coherent than in the earlier films but I’m not sure that is the case. I have mixed feelings about the film. It is well staged and the performances are strong. I am generally against the idea that an unpleasant character means that a film cannot work with audiences, but I confess that I did find Stig intensely annoying and at times quite stupid. On the other hand we (i.e. many men) all do stupid things at times in relationships. It doesn’t help that Maj-Britt Nilsson is beautiful and seemingly sensible. How could anyone behave in that way towards her? But then we know that Bergman’s characters are going to be tortured by self-doubt and to feel that they have been abandoned. In this case, Stig is the artist who thinks he has the talent to be supremely successful, but also suffers from the self-doubt that will prevent him attaining his goals. He doesn’t seem to realise that working on his relationship with Marta will probably improve his playing.

Another Bergmanesque use of a mirror in a melodrama

To Joy is closer in feel to the realism of Port of Call, rather than the expressionism of Prison, but there are certainly some melodrama moments and the orchestra setting provides the film with music and a representation of ‘artistic performance’. Also, two significant objects are carefully positioned/foregrounded at the start of the flashback and will eventually be revealed as such. At another point, a bottle of nail varnish is tipped over and begins to soak into a table-cloth. The film is monochrome but we assume that the nail polish is red. Bergman was a Hitchcock fan. The two ‘significant objects’ act in the narrative in ways that are familiar from Hitchcock’s films and Bergman follows the Hitchcock practice of appearing in his own films. Here he is an expectant father waiting in a maternity hospital.

A composition with a ‘significant object’ foregrounded – the teddy bear Stig gives to Marta

As in all of Bergman’s films, there is plenty of evidence here that Bergman and his team have many good ideas about how to stage scenes. They can also draw on very skilled actors who appear to be keen to work on Bergman films. Whether I enjoy the films seems to depend mainly on what Bergman is trying to achieve. I think I feel that he doesn’t like people very much or that he wants to explore the demons in his character’s heads because of his own demons. I feel that as I move forwards through his filmography that I find it harder to get involved with his characters. I’m trying to understand why many of the directors I admire were inspired by Bergman early in their careers. I need to watch Margarethe von Trotta’s film about him and read some more critiques.

Perhaps Bergman’s lack of interest in the sociology of his characters is my problem? We never learn anything about Stig’s background and all we know about Marta is that she has ‘grandparents’, but since this is mentioned in a family context this might refer to her own parents, i.e. the grandparents of her children. This contrasts with Stig’s relationships with both Sönderby and Mikael – older men who take the place of his father? What this film does provide, however, is babies – even though they follow previous abortions.

(Most of the images above come from dvdbeaver.com where you can find details of the DVD and Blu-ray editions of the film.)

Blinded by the Light (UK-US 2019)

An iconic British image composed in relation to the Motorway sign. Eliza (Nell Williams), Javed and Roops (Aaron Phagura)

Blinded by the Light is Gurinder Chadha’s eighth feature film, placing her alongside Sally Potter as the most prolific female director in British cinema since Muriel Box in the 1950s/60s. But I don’t think Chadha gets the credit she deserves for popular films which tell important stories. The early signs are that her latest film might be subject to the same criticisms that were aimed at some of her other features (‘feelgood’ doesn’t have to mean a ‘bad’ film). So I’ll just state from the off that I thoroughly enjoyed Blinded by the Light. I hope it reaches the widest possible audience and that Gurinder Chadha’s skills as a filmmaker are properly appreciated.

The intriguing aspect of her new film is how much it follows the same kind of narrative as that of her most successful film Bend It Like Beckham (UK-Germany 2002), yet Blinded by the Light is a form of biopic, very much the autobiographical story of Sarfraz Manzoor even if Chadha and her partner Paul Mayeda Berges have shaped it for an international release. Perhaps it isn’t so surprising. Manzoor was born in Pakistan and brought up in Luton and Chadha was born in Kenya and brought up in Southall. They might be ten years apart in age but their experiences of being ‘British Asians’ in the Thatcher years with their more overt manifestations of racism will have been similar. Chadha has said that the reappearance of racism and fascism on the streets following the Brexit referendum was one of the factors driving this production. Just to make the point clearer that the stories are similar, Chadha includes a sequence in which the Manzoor character Javed takes his sister to a ‘day-time night club’, the only way young South Asian girls could get to a dance in the 1980s (because of parental restrictions) – and a cultural phenomenon Chadha included in her first groundbreaking documentary short, I’m British But . . . (UK 1990).

Javed in full Bruce mode and inspired to write

Blinded by the Light offers Bruce Springsteen in place of David Beckham and a 16 year-old boy instead of an 18 year-old girl and, because it is Sarfraz Manzoor’s own story, it’s a ‘period drama’ set in 1987/8 rather than West London in the Blair era. A brief prologue introduces us to Javed as a young teenager with his only close friend Matt and we get an early sense of how isolated and trapped he feels in Luton (for overseas readers, Luton is a large town 30 miles NW of London and in the 1980s best known for the Vauxhall (GM) car factory).

The main narrative finds Javed, now 16 and moving to Luton’s Sixth Form College. Here he meets another British Asian, Roops, a Sikh who gives him a Springsteen cassette, explaining “Bruce is the Boss – he knows how you feel”. Though it takes Javed time to appreciate that Bruce definitely does speak to him about the things that matter – getting out of Luton and following his dream – he soon becomes a follower and embraces Springsteen’s lyrics as inspiration for his own writing. Javed’s dreams mean defying his father (he is studying English not Economics and wants to become a writer, not an accountant). When his father is made redundant by Vauxhall, Javed’s obsession to be a writer is in danger of causing a family rift. They need him to make money and to support his father. This is based on a true story so we know Javed will become a journalist (Sarfraz Mansoor is a successful journalist and radio and TV personality) but to do so he needs the support of an inspiring English teacher (played convincingly by Hayley Atwell) with her contacts. Will Javed get to America and visit Bruce’s home town? Will he get a girlfriend and will he learn to respect his family? Well what do you think?

Javed’s family with Dad (Kulvinder Ghir), Mum (Meera Ganatra) and Shazia (Nikita Mehta)

The narrative itself is certainly not original (and some of the college scenes are over-familiar) but Chadha includes two elements which give it a difference. Firstly, she doesn’t shy away from the racism on the streets including the National Front marches. Javed may himself draw back from confrontation with the racists and fascists at first but he can’t ignore the threat towards his family and his embrace of Springsteen gives him confidence to stand up and be counted. The other ‘difference’ is the way in which Chadha uses the Springsteen songs.

Bruce Springsteen liked Sarfraz Manzoor’s book and he gave Chadha free rein to use his songs. Because Javed is a writer and responds to Springsteen’s lyrics, Chadha decided to emphasise them in various sequences where Javed sings along to the songs on his Walkman and the lyrics appear on screen bouncing around Javed a line at a time. I remember Danny Boyle using a similar technique in Slumdog Millionaire where the subtitles escaped their usual position across the bottom of the frame.

Examples of the creative visual use of Springsteen’s lyrics

I enjoyed the use of the songs. I’m not an obsessive Springsteen fan but these are mainly the well-known songs from the period between ‘Born to Run’ (1975) and ‘Born in the USA’ (1984) so they worked for me. However, I did wonder if the balance of songs to dramatic scenes would be right for those least familiar with Springsteen. The key question may be how the film plays to younger audiences. I suspect that the film skews more towards a 35+ audience but I would hope Javed’s story appeals to younger audiences and especially to young British Asians. On its first weekend in the UK, it made No 4 in the chart and it also made it into the North American Top 10 this weekend. But both weekends were relatively ‘soft’ in terms of screen averages for wide releases. If the film does skew older, the midweek figures may be healthier but the effect is arguably less so in the summer holiday period. The film had made £2 million in the UK after eleven days and $4.45 million in the first three days in North America.

All the performances in the film are strong and mostly from newcomers playing the youth roles. I want to pick out the redoubtable Kulvinder Ghir as Javed’s Dad and the cameos by Rob Dryden as Matt’s Dad, Sally Phillips as the Sixth Form College Principal and Marcus Brigstocke as a Tory parent bemused by Javed’s appearance as his daughter’s boyfriend. All four actors are veterans of UK TV comedy. I also want to commend the cinematography by Ben Smithard and all of the design team re-creating 1980s Luton. Springsteen’s music is to the fore, but having A. R. Rahman responsible for the overall score makes Blinded by the Light a winner.

Beats of the Antonov (Sudan-South Africa 2014)

The women of one village

This shortish documentary feature (68 mins) was screened as part of Bradford’s Refugee Week with various intros and post-screening comments from members of the local Sudanese community in the city. The screen at the Delius Arts Centre is located in front of the stained glass windows of the late 19th century German church in the city (which still holds a service once a month, I think?). Bradford received many German migrants in the late 19th century and now it receives migrants from Africa and West Asia. It’s great to live in a city that welcomes those who need to move here for whatever reason.

Beats of the Antonov is a film by the Sudanese cinematographer and now director Hajooj Kuka who was educated in Beirut and in the US and who seems now to live between several places. He returned to Sudan to make this film with the backing of South African producer Steven Markovitz, who has helped bring many African stories to the screen. There has been  plenty going on in Sudan since 2014 and the regime of Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir who had held power since 1989 was finally ended in April this year after waves of protest in Sudanese cities. The situation is still highly volatile. This film is about the attempts by the al-Bashir regime to crush the resistance of the people of the Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan. The conflict is still live today. This area is now on the Southern border of Sudan since the partition of the country which created South Sudan in 2011 and there are refugees from the South in the area.

The film’s clever title refers to both the bombs dropped on villages by Antonov transport aircraft and Russian-built jet fighters and the music produced by the people on the ground as their means of solidifying their resistance and maintaining their strong community bonds. Hajooj Kuka started out thinking he was making a film about refugees and bombings but discovered a form of music and songs that he had never heard before (see the clip below). The music is produced using improvised musical instruments and many of the songs celebrate the everyday lives of the people of small communities under attack.

Celebrations of local culture

As filming progressed it became clear that the musical culture of these villages was all tied up with the fundamental question of ‘identity’ in Khartoum. Sudan is a large geographical area that contains many groups with different language cultures, different religious beliefs and a strong sense of identity. The Ottoman Empire and then the British Imperial administrations from 1899 up to Sudanese independence shifted between policies that either maintained or attempted to obliterate regional differences. Since 1956 there has been an attempt to ‘standardise’ Sudanese culture as Arabic-speaking and Islamic, something generally resisted by peoples from different backgrounds calling for recognition of their individual cultural identities. Kuka himself explains in the second clip below how he soon became aware of the importance of this in the mountains and how he started to reflect on his own identity. There are several comments in the film by local people about their ‘split’ identity between local and national ‘Sudanese’. One example that Kuka explores is the ‘girls’ music’ sung by some of the young women in the villages. The elders don’t like this music because it isn’t ‘traditional’, but neither is it like the commercial pop music played in Khartoum. The ‘girls’ compose their own lyrics about their lives sung to simple tunes. The dilemma for the local people is how to preserve one identity but not become ‘second-class citizens’ in a national sense. But in the meantime, how do they fight against the bombers? The film does include footage of the paramilitary forces of the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army).

This is a remarkable film that Hajooj Kaka made with the people of the region and which he has now taken around the world since its showing at Toronto in 2014. Not surprisingly it provoked lots of comments from the Sudanese in the audience in Bradford, including one from the area in question. The complicated political history of the country and its current issues are very important for the Sudanese people and their families in the UK. It was a privilege to be part of the audience and to very much enjoy the film – and also to realise just how much there still is to learn about British imperialist and colonialist practices in Africa and their role in the damaged future lives of ex-colonial subjects.