The Eagle Huntress is an extremely engaging film with a wonderful central character, a 13 year-old girl from a traditional Kazakh community located in Western Mongolia near the Altai Mountains. For its UK release, a film first screened at Sundance has received an extra narration from Daisy Ridley, the young star of Star Wars VII – The Force Awakens, the biggest film of 2016. Ridley is now named as Executive Producer of The Eagle Huntress and helped to promote the release with a strong emphasis on the concept of ‘girl power’. The BFI also supported the release by the small independent distributor Altitude, which opened the film on just 24 screens, subsequently widened to 50. After three weekends over the Christmas period the UK box office total was just £160,000. In the US, however, after 9 weeks, and on only 122 screens at most, it has made $2.3 million. In the US, Sony Classics is the distributor and the extra muscle from a studio probably means it got into more large cinemas. I suspect that the film will have ‘legs’ in the UK and a healthy future on DVD and online. We watched it at HOME Manchester on a Saturday afternoon with a healthy audience who certainly seemed to enjoy the film – as we did too.
So far, so good. But then I started to reflect on what I’d seen and a few question marks started to appear. I went into the screening having read some of the material in the Guardian and, I think, on BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme. I didn’t have any ‘agenda’ as such going in, but I do have a general apprehension about what might be termed ‘National Geographic‘-type films – those mixing wildlife and social anthropology and offering beautiful ‘exotic’ landscapes etc. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film in which we meet Aisholpan and her father Rys Nurgaiv. She wants to become an ‘eagle hunter’. Traditionally Rys would have trained his son, but the young man has joined the army. Aisholpan has been around eagles all her life. Her father has been a successful eagle hunter and he keeps a bird for seven years in order to hunt foxes and small mammals in the mountains. Hunting also gives him social status since the Eagle Hunt Festival is now a major tourist attraction in the town of Ölgii with its significant Kazakh diaspora community. He has no objection to training his daughter and his wife is equally supportive. The film comprises three main sections. Aisholpan finds a 3 month-old eaglet (females are preferred as they are bigger than males), successfully takes it from the nest and trains it; her father trains Aisholpan so she can take part in the festival and finally she goes with her father to hunt with her eagle in the winter to ‘prove’ she is a hunter. Interspersed between these sequences we see glimpses of Aisholpan’s life at home and at school (she’s a weekly boarder at school – her father collects her at weekends).
The film is described as a documentary and in some ways it resembles a superior reality TV programme with extra wildlife footage (Simon Niblett is an experienced wildlife cinematographer, director Otto Bell’s background is in corporate documentaries for multinational companies – he’s a Brit working out of New York). My two concerns about the film are that little information is given to us about the background of the community at its centre and, secondly, everything just seems to go so well. The description I gave in the first paragraph above came from my later research into Kazakh traditions and the diaspora in Mongolia – nothing was said in the film. In terms of the ‘ease’ of Aisholpan’s progress, in these kinds of narratives something usually ‘gets in the way’ of the hero – there are obstacles to overcome. Aisholpan seems to succeed almost immediately with everything she attempts. Her strong personality probably prevents us from noticing this smooth progress – we are happy for her, she deserves success. But doubts creep in. We wonder if perhaps the filmmaker has manipulated reality a little too much? But perhaps the crucial factor in increasing our worries is the gender equality question. The film seems intent on emphasising that Aisholpan is the first young woman to become an eagle hunter and that she faces stiff opposition. But the only ‘evidence’ of this is a montage of ‘grumpy old men’ who say “It’s not right” and similar. Yet everyone else – her father and mother, her grandfather, the judges at the Eagle Hunt Festival competition – supports her. What is going on?
Is the film a manipulation of the reality of gender roles in this Kazakh community?
When I started to read reviews and commentaries, I soon came across claims and counter-claims. The Canadian writer Meghan Fitz-James has been the most vociferous critic of the film’s ‘manipulation’ of the original story and you can read a piece by her here in which she also quotes from an article by Adrienne Mayor of Stanford University. (Fitz-James also adds a posting in which she explains how attempts were made to take down her original posting.) Adrienne Mayor explains how eagle-hunting has been carried out by the nomadic peoples of Central Asia for thousands of years:
Male bürkitshi [eagle falconers] are certainly more common than females today, although eagle hunting has always been open to interested girls. Archaeology suggests that eagle huntresses were probably more common in ancient times. (Mayor 2016)
Mayor also argues that far from a conservative society with fixed gender roles, these nomadic peoples developed a form of gender equality because men, women and children had to learn how to survive in such a harsh environment. Reading these papers, I remembered that the origins of the film were in a project undertaken by an Israeli photographer and documentary-maker Asher Svidensky. Director Otto Bell saw one of Svidensky’s original photos and decided he wanted to make a film. The two got together and Bell shot the scenes of capturing the eaglet. I think I remember an interview in which Bell said that his money ran out and he had to seek further backing. At this point I think he turned for advice to Morgan Spurlock the director of successful box office docs such as Supersize Me (US 2004). Spurlock eventually became one of the Executive Producers on The Eagle Huntress and on his website morganspurlock.com there is this description of the film:
. . . this film not only explores the life of a young girl striving to pursue her passion and break down gender barriers in a very traditional culture . . .
Whatever Otto Bell learned about selling his film, it certainly seems like it was based on a false premise. The more the gainsayers dig into this, the more obvious the manipulation becomes. How much the scenes (and the dialogue) were scripted doesn’t really matter, though I think the film would be improved by a little more ‘reality’. I don’t want to take anything away from Aisholpan or her story and I’m all in favour of inspiring young women with heroes like this young Kazakh girl. But it is unfortunate to say the least that the filmmakers have retained the false message about gender in Kazakh society and that they still call the film a documentary. The music too seems chosen to emphasise the appeal to the target audience but doesn’t seem to match the cultural context (I know I’m too old to appreciate the music!).
The whole story of the film’s production and distribution would make an excellent case study for Film Studies and Media Studies students in schools and FE/HE exploring what ‘documentary’ now means. Here is the official (US) trailer, note the steer in the narration:
(This post has been amended a couple of times, as I’ve found out more.)
The first of two Egyptian films in my selection, In the Last Days of the City proved to be fascinating – perhaps not the easiest start to my festival viewing but certainly a film I’ve thought about a lot since. Produced, written and directed by Tamer El Said, it’s an independent film that has taken several years to make and now emerges as an almost documentary record of a particular district of Cairo before the Arab Spring of 2011. In the Q&A after the screening, the director and his lead actor Khalid Abdalla referred to a film that was “made with foresight” and “edited in hindsight” – preparations began in 2009 with shooting spread over 30 months and a long period of editing.
Khalid (the actor uses his own name) is a thirty-something filmmaker in Cairo attempting to complete a film. It wasn’t clear to me exactly what kind of film it is intended to be, but it includes footage of people he knows and it is inspired by material sent to him by filmmaker friends who are in Baghdad, Berlin and Beirut. At one point he meets these friends in Cairo. At other times he finds himself looking around the city and coming across isolated incidents – police beating demonstrators, a man assaulting a woman. At these moments we feel a sense of unease at Khalid’s seeming voyeurism.
The film draws on the repertoire of films about filmmaking. Khalid has several problems. He falls out with the editor who is trying to complete post production in his flat. Khalid is also being forced out of the flat and must pack his books and household goods and search for a new place to live, not helped by a ‘useless’ estate agent. One of his subjects for his film is his ex-girlfriend who seems increasingly reluctant to help him out. Khalid’s mother is in hospital and he tries to see her on a regular basis.
The filmmaking process for Tamer El Said began with the intent to create a fiction and then slid into reality. The director used his own flat as one of the film’s locations and did then find himself forced to move. The scenes on the street did pick up the tension in Cairo before 2011. The status of the film now before us is uncertain, fiction bleeds into reality and vice versa. What is most striking are the formal properties of the filmic image. So, with an image on the computer screen, the camera zooms in and we are taken into the ‘fictional world’ on screen – but this is revealed to be the ‘real world’ of Khalid’s friends. The same can happen in reverse of course. ‘What is real?’ is an age-old question in cinema. Here though it takes on a new urgency as major changes are taking place in Egyptian society. Two observations are important. First, we are seeing only a small part of the city from a middle-class perspective (i.e. not necessarily wealthy but educated/artistic/cultured) and secondly the beautifully composed images by Bassem Fayad seem to convey the sadness of a city approaching turmoil implied by the title. This is certainly a festival film that will be a difficult sell for cinema distribution. It’s important though that this kind of Egyptian independent film gets seen internationally and broadens the perspective offered by different forms of Egyptian popular cinema.
(Keith reviewed this film last year when it was in the Leeds Film Festival – see the comment below with a link.)
Vincent Lindon is possibly my favourite French actor and for La loi du marché he won the acting prize at Cannes and a César Award in 2015. IMDB informs me that he comes from a wealthy family background and that he has supported a centrist politician in elections – yet he has the star persona of a rather tough, brusque but honest and intelligent working-class man in many films. In his third film with writer-director Stéphane Brizé he takes this familiar star persona a step further. The English translated title makes this film sound personal and rather abstract. I much prefer the French title which I translate as ‘The Law of the Market’. The emphasis is quite different. In this narrative, Lindon’s character is certainly tested, but the function of the narrative is to expose, in a way that is ‘open’ but also quite subtle, how contemporary working conditions and attitudes towards both employment and unemployment impact on workers and their families.
Thierry and his wife live in a modest house with their teenage son who needs their care and support to progress in his education because of some physical disabilities. Thierry has been made redundant from his job as a skilled machine tool operator. In his early 50s he has been out of work for many months and has suffered humiliation and rejection when he has attended interviews and training courses. When he finally gets another full-time job what kind of work will it be and what will have happened to his dignity and sense of worth?
This bare outline suggests a film comparable to those of Loach-Laverty and the Dardenne Brothers as well as that broader tradition of films about the workplace and industrial relations in French cinema. But in several ways this film is distinctive. Stéphane Brizé describes the kind of production he wanted like this:
Right from the beginning of the writing process, I knew the film would be shot with a tiny crew, and non-professional actors would work with Vincent. I went even further and told Christophe Rossignon (the producer) and Vincent Lindon that I wanted us to co-produce the project by imposing a limited budget and investing the better part of our salaries in the film, while paying the crew the normal rate. Not every film can be made this way, but this one allowed it. Content, style and financing echoed one another, and I liked this coherence. There was also the affirmation that films could be made differently at a time when the industry is seriously questioning how it finances production. I also had to rethink my set design and staging, as well as my themes. This film is the fruit of necessity. (From an interview in the film’s Press Pack.)
The result is a film which is visually quite austere and in which Thierry is clearly the central character. Brizé deliberately chose a young documentary cameraman Eric Dumont with no experience of fiction films and asked him to frame scenes for 2.35:1 CinemaScope. This enables Brizé to focus on Thierry but also to include other characters or décor that provide context for what Thierry is experiencing. Sometimes there is some blurring of the image on one side of the frame. I couldn’t see what was causing this. In much the same way the soundtrack has a visible hum in some scenes set in small functional rooms with harsh lighting. I wondered if this was deliberate or the result of low-budget shooting – such scenes also use hand-held camerawork. I know it’s a cliché but these ‘flaws’ do enhance the sense of realism. The film does indeed feel like a documentary but it is very slowly paced with long takes and sometimes a quite static camera. As far as I can see most of the ‘cast’ are non-professionals who play roles they also perform in ‘real life’. There is none of sensationalism or voyeurism of ‘reality TV’, nor any of the melodrama or comedy found in Loach-Laverty and slightly different Dardennes forms of social realism. If this makes Brizé’s film sound dull, it only takes a few minutes of a couple of the various well-chosen scenarios to reveal the power of the writing and to engage the viewer in the tragedy of Thierry’s situation and to marvel at his patience and strength. I got very angry very quickly but I also marvelled at the mixture of subtlety and brutality in these scenes.
At the centre of every scene is Vincent Lindon’s performance. Does he deserve all the praise and the awards? Absolutely, I would say. Physically, Vincent Lindon is a strong man – his facial features, his muscular arms – who we are convinced could do most manual jobs, but who would also have the inner strength to tackle other kinds of employment. In interviews in this film, Thierry is routinely humiliated. His interviewers don’t directly insult him, rather they carry out their routine questioning as they have perhaps been trained to do. The effect on Thierry is seen in his eyes and his posture. The brilliance of the performance is in the way Lindon’s body seems to crumble at the edges. This is neatly represented in a sequence in which Tierry and his wife Karine (Karine de Mirbeck – the non-professionals keep their own names?) go to a rock ‘n roll dance class. Everything is fine until the dance teacher tries to show Thierry how to move. The point here is that the non-professional actors are very good at representing themselves – the script sets up a situation that humiliates Thierry rather than their performances. Lindon as the professional has techniques and insight and physical control. The contrast is fascinating.
I should point out that the film does not have a happy ending. Instead, it is ‘open’, but I’m sure most audiences will worry about what will happen to Thierry, Katrine and their son Matthieu. I watched this film in one of my favourite cinemas where it is always a real pleasure to watch a film. Unfortunately, on this occasion I found myself sitting in front of a group of people who talked on and off throughout the film and often cackled or laughed loudly. The film isn’t a comedy although I did smile and laugh quietly once or twice. I fear that the laughter behind me was cruel and responded to the indignities heaped on Thierry, but perhaps it was fear? In one scene I felt so much for him I had to turn away from the screen. La loi du marché won’t be for everyone, but it’s one of my films of the year and a film every actor, scriptwriter and director should watch and learn from.
Congrats to New Wave, one of the most reliable UK distributors who still manage to bring us the best films. If only more exhibitors would be prepared to show them.
Court is a singular film and one of the most interesting and, despite being disturbing in its exposure of injustice, most enjoyable films released in the UK in 2016. It has been a prizewinner at festivals around the world and in 2015 was selected as best film in the Indian National Film Awards. Released by the independent distributor ‘day for night’ you can trace its journey across the UK on the company website. If you are in the UK there are still a couple of dates left on its tour. Don’t miss it! Court was released in North America in 2015 by Zeitgeist Films and is now on iTunes in the US.
Court is the first feature film by Chaitanya Tamhane. It’s an impressive production that is the result of meticulous research and preparation. Tamhane takes aim at the Indian judicial system, but also exposes issues of social class and caste. There are many Indian films that feature court scenes but these are usually high profile cases and the court procedures are only seen for a short time. No One Killed Jessica (India 2011) and Guilty (Talvar, 2015) are two recent films that have explored high-profile cases with the attendant interest of the Indian media. After lengthy research and observation of a local court, Tamhane decided to base his story on what happens in a ‘Sessions Court’ in a Mumbai district where cases are usually mundane with little interest by the media. As the name implies, these courts should deal with criminal matters within a single session, but in practice the use of adjournments and the culture of Indian bureaucracy means that cases can drag on for several months or even years while the accused is detained on remand – unless bail can be agreed and surety found. Tamhane wrote a detailed script based on his research but what transpires on screen appears as though it is part of a documentary.
The approach adopted by Tamhane and his crew is very simple – and thus unconventional. Cinematographer Mrinal Desai (who worked second unit on Slumdog Millionaire – a very different kind of film) ‘simply’ plonks down his camera and films in long takes (and often framing in long shot) from that position. It seems simple but requires careful choreography of actors and well-chosen positions from which to view the action. It perhaps sounds dull and although the film is in ‘Scope with vibrant colours, there aren’t many exciting vistas of Mumbai. Yet it works and more than that it works well. The film opens by following a character from an informal schoolroom in a housing block across the city to a square in another suburb. The character turns out to be a performer who climbs onto a makeshift stage and launches into a song/performance poem with lyrics that encourage protest and resistance. During the performance the camera first moves in to frame just the performance itself and then pulls back and, just like the classic scenes in a Rossellini neorealist film like Rome, Open City (Italy 1945), we watch in alarm as police enter the square with officers carefully positioned in the crowd while their leader strides onto the stage and arrests the performer. He is Narayan Kamble, the accused man whose trial we are about to witness.
The same camera style is employed throughout and often it is highly effective in creating that sense of realism often termed the ‘reality effect’. The fixed camera means that we are invited to watch everything that is happening without the framing ‘directing’ us to look specifically at the characters in the central narrative. The camerawork is accompanied by an editing style that works in two ways. Sometimes scenes end quite abruptly and the story seems to leap forward to the next scene. On other occasions the camera continues to film when the characters in the main story have left the scene and sometimes the sequence begins before the characters appear. This means in court that we see the tail-end of one case and the beginning of others. The overall effect is to confirm that what we are following in the main story is just one element in the daily life of the city.
Many of the actors in the film are non-professionals. Some are friends or colleagues of the director. Although the courtrooms look like the ‘real thing’ filming is not allowed inside them so Tamhane built sets – you aren’t likely to notice. The film’s story appears to have been based on a specific real life case, but there are many similar cases.
Finding the human story
A key aspect of the film is the focus on each of the central players (except the accused) – and their lives outside the court. We follow the judge and the prosecution and defence lawyers. The object of this is not so much to drive the narrative forward as to fill in the social context of the trial. All of the central characters are ‘real people’ outside the court with the kinds of problems that everyone has. Crucially the three characters represent different social strata.
The crime at the centre of the court case is frankly ludicrous and the prosecution is based on an obscure and obsolete Victorian criminal code. The purpose of the legal action is to persecute social activists – the kind of community music/poetry activism depicted is real enough and is explored in the recent documentary Jai Bhim Comrade (India 2011) by Anand Patwardhan which focuses on activism in Dalit communities (i.e. the lowest caste groups). Tamhane decides not to tell us about Narayan Kamble himself – apart from what is revealed in the court exchanges. The object is to expose the injustices and bureaucratic incompetencies of the court system. The ‘humanity’ of the film comes partly through the almost surreal humour that underpins certain scenes. Tamhane does not directly undermine any of his characters. Instead he invites the audience to come to their own conclusions (though he does decide what to show as well as how to show it).
The importance of language
The film uses four languages. The official languages of the court are Hindi and English. However, the working-class Mumbai communities use the local language Marathi (which, incidentally, has quite a strong local/regional film culture) which is allowed in court. The defence lawyer is a middle-class, upper caste man who takes the case much like a pro bono lawyer in North America. At home he speaks Gujarati with his family, but in court he speaks English – and is seemingly at a disadvantage with important defence witnesses who speak only Marathi. He speaks the local language but not fluently. Sometimes, characters use phrases from different languages in the same sentence – a common feature of Indian cinema. Do the judge and the prosecution counsel have an advantage in speaking three languages in court? Mumbai attracts migrants from across India so in some cases witnesses may not speak any of the three languages of the ‘Bombay’ court (as it is still officially known). The court system is clearly out of date and needs reform. The language question suggests that one of its chief problems is the lack of equal access to quite literally ‘speak’ in court.
The language of the judicial system is English and the archaic laws were introduced under the British Raj. They are now being used by Narendra Modi’s government to curtail the actions of political activists in much the same way the British curtailed political activity in the early 20th century. The three legal figures in court are all in one sense ‘middle-class’ which is a difficult concept in Indian society and in practice they live very different lives. The defence lawyer inhabits a global world of delicatessens and Western music bars with an income boosted by family wealth. The judge is part of a clubbable local community with its outings and social events. The prosecution lawyer has perhaps the most difficult job in managing both a professional life and her family – but this in turn perhaps makes her harder on the people she prosecutes. In the UK she might be a lower middle-class Tory, especially hard on working-class activists.
Court, in its quiet way, dissects and exposes the workings of contemporary India. It’s essential viewing.
The filmmakers discuss how the film came into being: