Portuguese director Nuno Escudeiro has made an affecting documentary set in the Roya and Durance Valleys on the France-Italy border. It’s primarily an observational work so we learn about the situation through characters’ interactions and occasionally their explanation of the situation to the director (but not directly the camera). For instance, one explains that the valleys, though in France, were part of Italy before World War II and the inhabitants don’t feel they belong to either country. It’s a sort of liminal space into which Eritrean refugees try to seek asylum.
Legally, of course, they should be able to do so but the authorities also perceive the area to be a liminal space otherwise why would they suspend due legal process? This is a naive question as police are often happy to contravene the law especially when told to do so. We learn most from Cedric, one of the leaders of local people who try to right the wrong done to the refugees who are often plonked back over the border into Italy without due process. Children often find, on official paperwork, that their birthdate is 1st January 2000 meaning they have suddenly become adult so can be dealt with particularly poorly. Such cynical corruption is indicative of the way those portrayed as Other are often treated.
As to the refugees themselves, there’s only one scene when we get to hear their voices directly. Even then we don’t get to know who they are, or from what they are fleeing, rather we are informed about their generalised sense of trauma. Whilst the absence of their voices is an obvious omission, it would be unfair to be too critical as Escudeiro’s purpose is clearly to tell the local heroes’ stories and he does this successfully. These people bear witness to the wrong and do what they can to set it right.
In recent news Turkey’s president Erdoğan threatened to allow 3.5 million Syrian refugees into Europe if there was any attempt to interfere with his restarted, courtesy of Trump, war on the Kurds. The morality of using people as a bargaining chip, never mind the fact they are desperate, is unspeakable. So Escudeiro’s film is important in reminding us human’s humanity to humans in a world where examples of inhumanity are too numerous to mention. Bearing witness to the terrible treatment of refugees is necessary so we don’t feel that such behaviour can be normalised.
Christian Petzold (b. 1960) is arguably the most visible member, in the international film marke,t of what has been termed the ‘Berlin School’ of writer-directors. This is a loose term for a group of filmmakers, some of whom studied in Berlin and others in different German-speaking film schools. Most of the films from the school might be considered ‘non-commercial’, often made with TV money and broadcast by German PSB channels. As well as Petzold, the other members of the group discussed on this blog include Thomas Arslan, Angela Schanalec and Valeska Grisebach. Petzold with four and Grisebach with two are the only ones to get UK cinema releases. Otherwise the school is known via festival screenings.
The Berlin School films do not adhere to a manifesto or to specific styles but they are generally low-budget and focused on relationships. However, Petzold’s films have made distinctive movements into genre territory and the last two have featured period drama in Barbara (2012) and Phoenix (2014). He has also been associated with a star actor – Nina Hoss has appeared in five of his films. Like others from the actual Berlin School (dffb), Petzold had a strong relationship with the filmmaker and teacher Harun Farocki and they were both interested in the 1944 novel Transit by Anna Seghers. Petzold’s film adaptation of that novel is dedicated to the memory of Farocki who died in 2014.
Seghers was a Jewish writer who managed to leave Germany for Paris in 1934 and, after the invasion of Northern France in 1940, to get a passage to Mexico via Marseille. The novel uses that experience to explore the problems faced by refugees in Marseille in their desperate attempts to leave. After the war, Seghers returned to Berlin and eventually settled in the GDR. She became known as a writer exploring the moral experience of the Second World War.
Petzold decided to reverse his original decision to make an adaptation of Transit as a period film. Instead he shot ‘on the street’ in contemporary France but kept the novel’s narrative events and characters, playing down the specific historical references and allowing similar present-day concerns to seep in. The characters themselves seem to exist in a kind of timeless bubble. While events around them are contemporary, they don’t use mobile phones and their costumes are simple and classic rather than ‘modern and fashionable’. In a terrific opening sequence we meet Georg (Franz Rogowski), a German in Paris with a friend in a bar. Georg is given some papers and charged with delivering them to a local hotel where a prominent German Jewish writer (who may also be a Communist) is hiding before leaving for Marseille and then Mexico. But the writer is already dead and Georg will find himself travelling to Marseille with the writer’s papers after avoiding the French police who are already starting a round-up of ‘undesirables’. We realise that France is about to be occupied and that Georg and Germans like him have to leave. In Marseille we will eventually learn more about Georg and follow him as he tries to use the papers to get a visa and a passage to Mexico via the US. I don’t want to spoil the narrative but it is important to know that the dead writer’s wife Marie (Paula Beer) is also in Marseille, looking for her husband – and we know that she and Georg must meet eventually.
This is the kind of film which if approached ‘cold’ with no background information is likely to lead to bewilderment. It needs a second viewing or some research. Jonathan Romney interviews Petzold in Sight and Sound (September 2019) and there are Press Notes with more material (I found then on the website of Music Box, the US distributor). Perhaps the way in is to think of similar narratives and associated genres. Seghers is said to have been inspired by Kafka and at least one reviewer has summarised Transit as “Casablanca re-written by Kafka”. Romney suggests Albert Camus and cites La Peste (The Plague 1947) set in Oran, Algeria. I can see that the sunny dusty streets of Marseille do suggest the enervating heat of Spain, Portugal and the Maghreb, all locales where ‘disappearing’ suddenly seems a possibility. In Petzold’s narrative there are no airline services and the Spain and Portugal of the 1940s were both fascist-controlled even when neutral. Port cities are always settings for migration and exile issues. I was reminded of the films of Aki Kaurismäki and of Marcel Carné’s Le Quai des brumes (1938) in which Jean Gabin is an army deserter trying to get a boat to Venezuela from Le Havre.
‘Transit’ is an interesting title since in English the term has two slightly different meanings. While it refers to the movement of goods or people between two places, it is also used to describe the ‘condition’ of being ‘in transit’ – between two places with no fixed status. In the Press Notes, Petzold discusses these kinds of meanings at some length. He refers to the German term Geschichtsstille, literally translated as “history standing still’. Petzold found the term in the writings of another 1940s refugee, Georg K. Glaser, also a German Jew. Glaser and Seghers experienced the same sense of loss and displacement but they seem to have ‘come out of it’ in slightly different ways. I find all of this quite fascinating but it’s difficult to follow Petzold’s ideas and to trace how he has worked them through in the film narrative. I’ll try and just give a few examples here and leave some other ideas until I can see the film again.
Watching the film before I was aware of the idea of Geschichtsstille, I thought about the idea of ‘limbo’ and of being in a world where a small group of characters exist in very tight emotional relationships but with few options about how to act or to move forward. Meanwhile, the world around them changes. One way to represent this is to provide the narrative with a separate ‘observing’ narrator. Such narration via voiceover is often not popular with contemporary cinema audiences, though it doesn’t bother me. Petzold’s idea is to include some narration but to eventually reveal that it comes from a character in the film narrative. Allied to this is the writer’s manuscript that Georg found in Paris and which seems to offer him the possibility of being someone else, to be like an actor in another narrative, which he must be in order to ‘become’ the writer who hopes to get a visa. The Kafkaesque state in which Georg and Marie and a third German refugee character find themselves is neatly summed up in a scene when Georg is looking for a hotel room in Marseiile and the owner says that he must have a transit visa to prove that he is leaving France in order to be granted permission to stay in the hotel.
Transit is a mesmeric narrative and much depends on the playing of the two leads, both of whom are excellent. Franz Rogowski as Georg may be best known in the UK as one of the young men in Victoria (Germany 2015) but more recently he was the lead in the intriguing In the Aisles (Germany 2018). I’ve already swooned over Paula Beer in discussing the François Ozon film Frantz (France-Germany 2016). What makes her performance so unnerving in Transit is that she so much resembles Nina Hoss, not facially perhaps but her hair, the way she wears the classic 1940s clothes and sometimes the way she moves reminded me of Hoss in Yella, Barbara and Phoenix. Not that she offers an imitation of Nina Hoss but these resemblances add to the sense of ‘other worldness’. There is also a narrative twist to Marie’s story that recalls Yella. The film is shot in CinemaScope ratio by Hans Fromm, Petzold’s regular DoP. Petzold explains:
It was important to me that the spaces we were working in allowed for a choreography where the characters not only communicate with each other through dialogue. Instead, their presence, their movements, and the distances they maintain from each other, tell so much more than them constantly talking ever could. CinemaScope gives you that space to move in, and it allowed us to do long takes and follow the actors’ choreography.
I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of everything that Transit offers. I haven’t mentioned the uncanny ways in which the contemporary refugee issues in Europe begin to creep into the film and how Petzold uses the Maghrebi presence in Marseille as a factor in the narrative. This will be one of my films of the year and I’m now enthused to review the previous Petzold films I’ve managed to accumulate.
2018 saw the release of six films of the highest quality which took many of the top prizes around the world at festivals and national awards. Cold War was followed into UK distribution by Shoplifters and then Roma. Burning appeared in early 2019 and now we have Capernaum. Happy as Lazzaro appears next month. What a year 2018 was! And there are others to come which I haven’t seen yet. We might struggle to find such quality across this year’s output.
Capernaum (the title translates as ‘chaos) is one of the most controversial of the six films. While many audiences and critics have raved about the film, there are some who have accused Lebanese writer-director-actor Nadine Labaki and her musician-producer partner Khaled Mouzanar of various kinds of offences. The most widely expressed of these centres on the concept of ‘poverty porn’, something previously visited upon Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire (UK-US-India 2009). I struggle to understand exactly what ‘poverty porn’ might be but first here’s a brief outline of Capernaum and its production.
Lebanon is a country which has suffered more than most because of its own internal divisions, partly derived from its colonial past, and its proximity to the wholescale disruption of people’s lives in Palestine and Syria and the subsequent migrations of refugees to Lebanon. At the same time, Beirut has maintained its position as a major economic and cultural centre for the entire region. Nadine Labaki has attempted to bring together several social issues as the basis for her story about Zain, a 12 year-old Lebanese boy who leaves his family and for a brief period lives with a migrant worker and her infant child. The story engages with the ‘street culture’ of Beirut, the refugee camps, the difficulty of achieving resident status and the ways in which so many people can easily become ‘invisible’ because of their lack of official recognition. Thus the ‘chaos’ of life in Beirut. Labaki’s strategy is to create a narrative which at one level appears to explore this world using the techniques of neo-realism, but also with some of the more expressionist devices of contemporary cinema such as the drone shots which show the extent of of cheap housing and shacks. The narrative structure uses a series of flashbacks from a central court case in which the young boy sues his parents for bringing him into this world of chaos.
Nadine Labaki’s previous films as director are Caramel (2007) and Where Do We Go Now? (2011). The first is a form of realist melodrama centring on the lives of women from different backgrounds who meet at a local beauty shop. The second is an unusual form of musical comedy which explores questions about civil war via the idea of women in an isolated village attempting to defuse hostilities by manipulating the sexual desires of the men. Capernaum is in some way an amalgam of the styles of the first two films, bringing together a realist style with the narrative device of a courtroom in which the trial becomes an indictment of a whole structure of government policies in Beirut. This is something used in a slightly different way in a film like Bamako (Mali-France 2006). Nadine Labaki also starred in her first two films as a director (she also works as an actor in both French and Lebanese cinema) but in Capernaum she plays the role of the Zain’s counsel in court, an important, but secondary role. Although the trial seems an unlikely event, Labaki consulted retired judges to ensure that the scenes have some credibility. Many of the actors in the film are non-professionals, often with ‘real-life’ experience of the kinds of roles they play.
Only a vocal minority of commentators are against this film which scores a very high 8.4 on IMDb. But it is worth looking at the negative reviews to try to understand the issues a little more clearly. The Slumdog Millionaire comparison is interesting because some of the critics refer to Capernaum as ‘Oscar bait’ and accuse it of ‘manipulation’. (The film was distributed in the US by Sony Classics in the US, giving it a higher profile than Labaki’s earlier films.) At the same time there are charges from some critics that the film is ‘without cinematic merit’ while for others its use of hand-held camera and drone shots (and its flashback structure) are cinematic devices which ‘get in the way’ of presenting the real conditions faced by the thousands living in cheap housing or on the streets in Beirut. The charge is that Labaki is a relatively wealthy woman exploiting her non-professional actors in order to make American audiences cry – and presumably to make themselves feel better. One commentator calls Labaki a ‘Western woman’. But not everybody who is educated, talented and speaks French and/or English is ‘Western’. It seems that Nadine Labaki had to help some of her non-professional actors in ‘real life’ because of their precarious positions. ‘Zain’ is played by Zain Al Rafeea, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon and ‘Rahil’, the woman he meets and befriends is played by Yordanos Shiferaw, an Eritrean refugee in Ethiopia who became an illegal migrant worker in Lebanon. Both Zain and Yordanos were helped in different ways. The parents of the little girl who plays Rahil’s son were also arrested during the shoot and the crew had to intervene. Even so the mother and child were deported back to Kenya and the father to Nigeria. This information is taken from the film’s Press Pack.
But what about ‘poverty porn’? Describing something as ‘porn’ suggests that it is produced in order to ‘arouse’ audiences/readers, to stimulate an excessive interest in something. In the case of ‘gastro-porn’ or ‘gardening porn’ it’s used as a criticism of middle class readers who revel in the expensive beauty of these objects of consumption. But how does this work with images of poverty? Their status as pornographic images can derive only from the perceived exploitation of the actors or the behaviour of those who watch/read the imagery. However, unlike haute cuisine or beautiful gardens, images of poverty are also concerned with exposing and circulating ways of living/surviving that are often excluded from cinema screens. There is always a case for showing not excluding. The argument must be about how they are shown, but also about the need to show them in such a way to attract audiences who might not otherwise be aware of the issues.
If I think about my own reaction to the film, I don’t think I was ‘shocked’ or that I felt ‘manipulated’ by the film. Many scenes are certainly difficult to watch and I was emotionally engaged but I’ve seen similar films before. Once or twice I was struck by similarities with Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988) and, more oddly, I thought about Battle of Algiers (Algeria-France 1966) – I think it was the prison scenes. I was very impressed by the performances of the non-professionals. Zain in particular is a very distinctive young boy, small for his age but seemingly fearless. The fact that he is a very attractive and appealing child has perhaps fuelled some of the negative reviews. The German-Lebanese cinematographer Christopher Aoun is still in the early stages of his career but I thought his work was very effective. The music by Khaled Mouzanar worked for me and he and Nadine Labaki have produced a film with a universal story that is stunningly presented in the context of Beirut.
I don’t know Nadine Labaki personally and I can’t judge whether she has exploited her non-professional cast. All I can do is watch the film and read what she has said about its production. Her most vocal critics might have some local knowledge about life in Beirut but from my perspective this is a powerful film that deserves its large audience. The claims that it has no ‘cinematic merit’ just seem silly. In the wider context I hope that Capernaum makes audiences more aware of the refugee crisis in Lebanon and exerts pressure for changes in international policies affecting the region. It would be good if attention switched to a little further down the coast and focused on the major causes of the refugee crises in Lebanon over the past 70 years – the forced flight of Palestinians from their homelands and the proxy war that has just been fought in Syria. I’m also looking forward to whatever Nadine Labaki produces next.
Here’s the Canadian trailer:
Ísold Uggadóttir’s first feature, which she also scripted, won the Best World Cinema Competition at the Sundance Film Festival and highlights the importance of the screenplay in filmmaking. And Breathe Normally‘s script just doesn’t quite hold together as narrative difficulties are often elided by moving on quickly to the next scene. However, this is a minor criticism as the film is a highly involving story about a refugee (Babetida Sadjo) from Guinea-Bissau (due to her sexuality) marooned in Iceland as her passport is fake.
It’s also about Lára (Kristín Þóra Haraldsdóttir), a single mum who also happens to be gay, who’s struggling in poverty and her path crosses Adja’s (the refugee) when she takes a job as a border guard. What struck me is the way Uggadóttir, whose direction is excellent, manages to suggest that social class is the key element rather than race, sexuality or gender. Despite idiots like Tory James Cleverly dismissing I, Daniel Blake because it’s fiction, only the wilfully blind are unaware that inequality in many societies has reached unsustainable levels (inequality is never right but was sustained by the welfare state, ease of credit and expanding economies). What unites the disadvantaged is usually social class; this is not to say ‘identity politics’ are not important, but that Marx’s call for class consciousness to fight exploitation is as valid as ever.
There are few institutions in the film as it is a social realist ‘slice of life’. We see border security at work and some of the workings of the deportation process; we are also shown, briefly, Lára’s son’s school. However it is clear that she is almost as trapped by society as Adja; ‘almost’ because for Lára there is some hope, ironically, in the border guard job: by saving herself and her son she has to oppress others.
Uggadóttir shot the film in Reykjanesbær, a town that houses the international airport in Iceland. It is shown to be ugly and she explains that the film avoids the tourist clichés used to represent the country. It is a bleak film (I won’t give away whether the ending offers hope) that gives a convincing glimpse into the lives of refugees (and the poor) who are often demonised whilst they are invariably the victims. Netflix.