It was timely of MUBI to post this film of Swedish National Broadcast Company news footage on American Civil Rights protests. Director Göran Olsson discovered the footage whilst researching and realised it needed to be presented to a contemporary audience. He starts with an interview with a white, small businessman who reiterates the myth of the American Dream and this frames the impossibility at the time of even believing in the Dream if you were a ‘person of colour’. The Swedish journalists went to where it was at and interviewed, or filmed speaking, key campaigners for Black Power: Elaine Brown, Stokley Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Although, as Olsson says in a Film Comment interview, his film is about the Swedish point of view of the time, in order to not overly privilege this viewpoint he included a contemporary African-American view on the footage with comments from musicians Erykah Badu, John Forté (of The Fugees) and Talib Kweli and professors Angela Davis, Robin Kelley and Sonia Sanchez. As he says, these voices have a feel of a DVD commentary and it’s especially good to hear Angela Davis; the footage includes her trial for abetting murder which was such a farcical charge that (you’d hope) it had no chance of sticking.
Unfortunately what’s most striking about the documentary is how little things have changed for African Americans. The same police brutality and government connivance in repression: all in the ‘land of the free’. One difference is, of course, social media were we can readily see police violence though it is unnerving how this does not curb their brutality. The news media, in the 1960s, were probably more likely to ‘call out’ government malfeasance as the increasing corporatisation of news since the 1980s has mitigated risk taking and investigative reporting. The Swedish reporters’ ‘neutral and friendly’ demeanour comes through strongly as they were seeking the ‘truth’; though Angela Davis’ brilliant putdown, whilst being interviewed in prison on the trumped-up charges (was that phrase named after him?!), showed the inevitable limitations of their perspective. Olsson also includes footage of a tourist bus tour of Swedes in Harlem in which the racist assumptions aired are shocking today.
The ending, rightly, is bleak as heroin flooded into Harlem and so, successfully, dispersed Black radicalism; a similar policy was used in LA in the 1980s. This uses footage from Lars Ulvestam’s documentary Harlem: Voices, Faces (Sweden, 1973).
The story hasn’t ended; currently there have been more than two weeks of protest in America after George Floyd’s murder on camera by police. It would be nice to think that this will be a turning point, particularly with the Hater in Chief currently occupying the White House and the fact that the protests have extended worldwide. It was good to see slave trader Colston’s statue being plonked into the harbour in Bristol, UK, last weekend though it is likely the forces of reaction will be not far behind. That such mass protests are happening during a pandemic (though police are more likely to kill African American males than Covid19) is worrying.
Bacurau is released in the UK on Friday and is likely to make quite a splash. It’s a long film (130 mins) and has an 18 Certificate in the UK. This is primarily for the spectacularly violent killings. It’s a difficult film to classify but a film that seems remarkable timely, especially in the context of Brazilian politics. The film’s opening suggests that the narrative is set ‘a few years in the future’ but the only obvious reference to this is the decision to present a contemporary piece of technology modelled as something that might have appeared in a 1950s science fiction movie. Everything else could be happening now – and some of it probably is.
Teresa (Bárbara Colen) is heading back to her village in the sertão (the Brazilian ‘bush’ or ‘outback’) in the North East of the country, hitching a ride on a water wagon. The area’s water supply has been cut off. Teresa is returning for the funeral and wake of Carmelita, her grandmother who has died at 94 as the matriarch of the (fictional) village of Bacurau. When she arrives she pops a pill, a traditional psychotropic drug taken in the village on specific occasions. The proceedings of the wake are interrupted by a drunken Domingas (played by the veteran Brazilian star Sonia Braga), the local doctor and presumably a rival for Teresa’s grandmother. Perhaps more significantly, a visit by the local politician ‘Tony Jr.’ is met with derision. The village leaders do however take his ‘bribes’ of out of date food and distribute them. This feels like a village which is isolated and possibly under siege. It suddenly ‘disappears’ off Google Earth and then the first killings of local farmers are discovered.
Bacurau won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2019 and its writing and directing duo, Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho, have themselves hinted at their main genre inspiration, the Western. They have fashioned a film which presents a region of Brazil in new ways and makes reference to Brazilian history and culture and to periods of American domination of Latin America. It also reminds us of the films of Glauber Rocha such as Black God, White Devil (1964) and Antonio das Mortes (1969), both Cinema Novo Westerns set in the sertão. Many of the references will only be accessible to some Brazilian audiences. The film’s title, the name of the village, for instance is the name of
a nocturnal bird with excellent camouflage when it’s on a branch . . . it evokes the mystery of something that is there, in the darkness, alive but unseen, and that will only be noticed if it wants to be. The same is true of Bacurau the town: it is familiar with darkness; it knows how to lay low; in fact it prefers not to be noticed. (The directors quoted in the Press Notes).
But for some reason this multiracial village, with a collectivist attitude towards helping each other, is now under threat. Where does the threat come from? Who is behind the killings? Is it Tony Jr.? Who is the English-speaking German (Udo Kier) who seems to be the ‘contract killer’ leading the attacks? My viewing companions both agreed that the battle that takes up the second half of the film is reminiscent of ‘spaghetti westerns’. It seemed to me that some scenes were modelled on Seven Samurai or it’s Hollywood remake, The Magnificent Seven – except that the numbers are reversed, so a small group of heavily armed foreigners takes on a larger group of villagers. The directors also show their hand with the choice of music score which includes the memorable music devised by John Carpenter for his early breakthrough, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), another famous siege movie. It’s difficult to analyse other aspects of the production when the action is so tense but my impression was of long takes and long shots. The directors speak of miles of tracks laid down to enable a mobile camera. One thing I did notice which refers back to Seven Samurai was the use of Kurosawa style wipes, used here with the CinemaScope framing more associated with Leone. (Well done Simran Hans in the Observer for reminding me.)
It’s not difficult to link the film’s main ideas to contemporary politics with Jair Bolsonaro, the right-wing President who came to power on 1st January 2019 (when shooting would have been completed) and who represents the opposite of everything that the villagers celebrate. The power of the film is to oppose the threats of politicians like Bolsonaro by reference to traditional modes of resistance. The Press Notes refer to two traditions in Brazilian culture. One is the cangaço genre which featured a form of ‘social banditry’ and was popular in 1950s and 1960s Brazilian cinema. The character of Lunga, a young man who has made his base in the disused dam embodies this kind of social bandit. The film also reflects various political divides in Brazil, including the American incursions and within Brazil the North v. South. A specific concept related to this Coronelism:
Coronelism was the political machine that dominated Brazil during the Old Republic (1889-1930), when local power was in the hands of powerful landowners, coronels, who controlled a particular area and its population’s vote. More broadly, the term applies to this model’s enduring influence in the life of the country. (from the Press Notes Interview by Tatiana Monassa)
I hope that Bacurau finds the large audience it deserves in the UK. It could be a worthy successor to Parasite in attracting audiences to films with subtitles and which explore the basic inequalities of contemporary life. And, unlike Les misérables, it has several important roles for women.
Following Crystal Swan, my second LFF choice turned out to be almost the opposite kind of film. A Family Tour is a much more serious and thoughtful film but is perhaps too low-key to catch the attention it deserves as a commentary on the lot of independent filmmakers in China. The narrative is based on events in the life of the film’s director Ying Liang. It concerns an independent filmmaker from North East China whose film has been banned in the PRC because it discusses a local criminal trial viewed as having political implications. Director Yang Shu (Gong Zhe) has been forced to leave China and join her husband Cheung Ka-Ming (Pete Teo) and small son in Hong Kong where father and son have the protection of birth in the SAR (‘Special Administrative Region’) whereas Shu herself must keep seeking the right to remain. She can’t go back to the mainland in case she is detained. However, Shu’s mother Chen Xiaolin (Nai An) is now ill with heart disease and Shu feels she must see her again.
The opportunity to meet comes when Yang Shu is invited to present her film at the Formosa Film Festival in Taiwan. Her elderly mother can join a tour party in Taipei (one of the few ways in which trips to Taiwan from China are allowed) and Yang Shu and her family can book into the same hotel. They can’t however meet Mrs Chen directly. Instead they must pretend she is simply a family friend and meet her ‘accidentally’ as the tour bus visits various tourist destinations. The tour party is led by a small but ferocious woman briefed by the PRC authorities and she is keen to enforce the rules (and to receive ‘sweeteners’ from Cheung Ka-Ming). As this strange family reunion trundles around Taiwan, several different discourses about home, family, loyalty, exile and identity emerge. There is an emotional desire to see her grandson in the flesh from Mrs Chen (she has kept in touch via Skype) but for Yang Shu there is pain and anger as she learns more about what happened to her father and also a different kind of loss when Mrs Chen tells her about the changes in her home town. Cheung Ka-Ming wants to support his wife and mother-in-law, but in some ways his capacity to move between the mainland and Hong Kong makes his wife feel more isolated.
Meanwhile, the film festival occasionally intrudes and more importantly, Yang Shu’s next film, a Hong Kong production which features the Umbrella Protests in 2014, runs into problems which might be caused by the mainland authorities. I found the Variety Review of the film by Jay Weissberg to be informative and insightful. I can see that there are many interesting aspects of the narrative and that it conveys the anguish of exile and separation and the impact of learning about the past in subtle and affecting ways. It is a well-made and attractive film to watch but somehow it just felt too restrained. The problem is no doubt with me. Yang Shu is reserved and her anger is often internal, Cheung Ka-Ming is more outgoing, kind and considerate – but then he is not under pressure in the same way. I haven’t seen the previous films from Ying Liang. Reviewers suggest he has introduced some more intimate shots into his usual long shot style. The consensus seems to be that this film is a welcome development in the handling of what is quite an austere aesthetic approach and that it should have a successful run on the festival circuit.