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.
The Good Lie is an intriguing film – a Hollywood-funded production distributed by Warner Bros featuring Reese Witherspoon, executive-produced by Ron Howard and directed by the Québecois auteur Philippe Falardeau, an Oscar nominee for Monsieur Lazhar (Canada 2011). It defies easy assumptions in its negotiation of the idea of a ‘feelgood film’. On IMDb it rates a 7.4 user score with many highly enthusiastic user reviews. Yet Warner Bros. released it in North America on less than 500 screens. In the UK, Canadian mini-major eOne opened the film in just 23 cinemas – this tiny release passed me by and I should certainly have sought out the film in cinemas in 2015. In retrospect this reluctance by the major distributors should have warned us what to expect for the release of Disney’s Queen of Katwe (2016).
The link between Queen of Katwe and The Good Lie is American overseas aid/charities in Kenya. The Good Lie tells the story of a small group of the ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’ – the children of villages in southern Sudan who fled when their homes were attacked and their parents killed by soldiers from the north during the civil war in the 1980s. These children and young teenagers walked several hundred miles before reaching a refugee camp in Kenya and then had to wait a further dozen years or so before being offered refugee status in the US in 2000. Two important family issues arise for the small group and the narrative drive of the film develops two separate strands – how the refugees struggle to come to terms with life in the US and how these two family issues are resolved. The film’s resolution is certainly upbeat, but it isn’t a typical Hollywood ending.
With a major star like Reese Witherspoon attached to the project The Good Lie certainly had the profile to attract audiences, but the obvious worry would be how the Sudanese actors (most of whom are themselves refugees from the conflict) would perform alongside Ms Witherspoon. I think that they all do a good job in individual scenes. The main problem is that there isn’t really enough screen time to allow Witherspoon’s character (initially professionally distanced as an employment consultant) to develop a real emotional attachment to the success of the refugees’ settlement in the Mid-West. She seems to switch almost instantaneously and to become involved in the solving of a refugee family problem. However, the narrative’s main concern is the progress of the refugee narrative and that is how it should be.
I was a little taken aback by some of the events following the arrival of the refugees in Kansas and the actions of the immigration officials seemed outrageous in one respect. At one point I found the jokes about the unfamiliarity of aspects of American culture just seemed to go too far but overall I guess Falardeau and scriptwriter Margaret Nagle keep the ‘strangeness’ theme in check. I have to admit that watching films about refugees from Africa and parts of Asia in the US from a European perspective is quite odd. Both refugees and their Mid-West hosts seem almost entirely clueless about each other’s culture. In the UK, it often seems as if refugees who make it this far (i.e. often travelling through Europe) are much more aware of what to expect when they arrive and most host cities know what to expect when welcoming them. However, this particular narrative which flies young adults straight from a Kenya camp to an American city with presumably much less experience of refugees is significantly different. I don’t want to spoil the narrative resolution but the writer Margaret Nagle (best known for acting in and writing TV dramas) and Falardeau manage a satisfactory bittersweet ending which undermines any sugary sense of feelgood. One of the family stories works out but the other is negotiated. The title gives a clue to one aspect of the story and derives from a passage in Huckleberry Finn. It’s also worth pointing out that the early scenes in the film are violent and upsetting.
Reading some of the US reviews and background, it seems that Margaret Nagle did a considerable amount of research, interviewing refugees and those responsible for their placement in the US. In addition two of the producers had direct experience of taking in refugees or visiting some of the Kenyan locations. I get the impression that some of the push behind the film may have come from Christian groups in the US. I’ve seen some questionable activities by missionary charities in documentaries in Sudan, but in this film it seems to be humanitarian charity that brings the refugees to the US.
The Good Lie is certainly a global production with infrastructure in Africa being supplied/accessed via South Africa. Director Falardeau (experienced in shooting around the world) also took with him his cinematographer Roland Plante and editor Richard Comeau from Québéc. The Indian connection comes via Reliance, the Indian media major which has invested heavily in Hollywood productions for several years now.
The Good Lie is certainly worth seeking out as a particular kind of film about migration. It might be interesting to compare it with the rather different migration of Palestinians to the US in Amreeka (US-Canada-Kuwait 2009).
I was pleased to finally catch the latest film from Aki Kaurismäki in cinemas. I knew I would like it and indeed I spent 100 joyful minutes in the splendid Hebden Bridge Picture House relishing every moment. Looking back I see that I spelt out Kaurismäki’s unique approach in detail in relation to Le Havre (2011). Nothing has changed. The Other Side of Hope returns us to Helsinki and the docks where a man emerges from a pile of coal in the hold of a ship and walks purposefully into the city. This is Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a young Syrian who has made his way across Europe, but who has lost his sister at a border crossing in Serbia. Running in parallel is a second story about a Finnish man who leaves his wedding ring with a woman (is this his wife?) and climbs into his 1950s American-style car for his rounds as a shirt salesman. We know very well that these two men will meet and that there will be bouts of live music from a variety of performers plus some strange encounters with officialdom, retail staff and others – everything shot in the lighting and colour palettes of 1950s cinema – although this time I also thought about the exquisite production design and mise en scène of Roy Andersson with its more drab palette but similar flat feel.
I don’t know quite why Kaurismäki’s films work quite so well but much of the appeal is the inherent ‘goodness’ of the characters, even when they behave ‘badly’. Khaled is a young man, but the shirt salesman Wikström is just into his 60s. Like many of the older characters, Wikström is not movie star handsome but he is allowed to be smart (but not too smart) in the way he organises things. He eventually leaves his job, wins some money and buys a run-down restaurant business. Some of the funniest scenes are those showing his attempts to ‘re-brand’ the business, including as a sushi restaurant. Here Kaurismäki gently mocks the idea of appropriating cultural identities.
Kaurismäki’s characters fall neatly into three types. The villains are simply villainous (here mainly defined as racist thugs). The officials are efficient (without being super-efficient) and apply the rules of the system fairly. ‘Ordinary’ people (less important officials, workers and Kaurismäki’s usual group of marginal people living rough) are usually helpful to the Khaleds of this world, recognising the need for working-class solidarity. If only real life was like this. Yet Kaurismäki is right to think that by presenting his absurdist images of a tolerant, accepting host country, he is performing a service for audiences in countries like the UK where a handful of Syrian refugees seems like the limit (but I’m proud to live in one of the cities that has taken a significant number). In a Guardian interview he refers to the ‘shame’ of Europe’s response to the refugee crisis, noting how Brexit will make things worse (too right). But he seems tired of making films and trying to keep up with changing technologies. I hope he gets over this and makes many more films that raise spirits. I wish he felt he could make a film in the UK. We certainly need his talents and humanist commitment.
This film has finally been released in the UK, a year after France and the US. In many ways, it is an old-fashioned film, though its subject matter is contemporary enough. I hesitate to refer to the 1940s/50s Ealing Comedies but it does offer some of the same pleasures as those films (and to more recent films like those of Nigel Cole such as Saving Grace (2000)). My puzzlement as to where the film came from creatively lasted until I realised that its director and co-producer Jonathan Goldschmidt is a UK TV drama veteran who has not made a feature for the cinema since the Julie Walters comedy She’ll Be Wearing Pink Pyjamas in 1985. I’m not sure what he has been doing in the meantime, but his production company Viva Films co-produced this film with Hungarian partners and the interior scenes were shot in Hungary. Goldschmidt was a major figure in UK television and set up links between Granada and NDR in Hamburg. Later he worked on various EU audio-visual initiatives. The most pertinent connection for this comedy is probably his work with the great writer Jack Rosenthal.
The plot is very familiar. Nat (Jonathan Pryce), an ageing East End baker, is struggling to keep open his shop in the face of competition from a local supermarket chain owned by Sam Cotton (Phil Davis) and when he loses his apprentice to Cotton’s (who want to attract custom from Jewish residents) it looks like the end is near. In a desperate step he takes on a new ‘lad’, Aayash (Jerome Holder), the son of the shop’s cleaner, an African refugee from Sudan. Nat is becoming estranged from his own son, now too ‘respectable’ to support his father and he reluctantly begins to accept his new Muslim apprentice in his traditional Jewish bakery. But Aayash has his own problems – he is locked into an arrangement to deal cannabis for a local ‘hard man’ (Ian Hart). By accident, he stumbles across a possible solution to everyone’s problem and suddenly the baker’s shop is doing a roaring trade. You can probably guess what has happened and the narrative follows a familiar course.
The script is witty and the cast are very good. As well as the three veterans listed above, Pauline Collins plays Nat’s landlady. Jerome Holder is also very good. The audience in the French cinema in which I saw the film last year laughed in all the right places, some of them seemingly ahead of the subtitles. Other than that, the most striking aspect of the film for me was the inclusion of scenes set in a synagogue – relatively unusual I think in British cinema. Jonathan Pryce has been playing Shylock in the US I think – and he has also starred in Game of Thrones. I’m not sure why the film took so long to get a UK release – I would have thought it would sell well to older audiences. This weekend my assumption proved correct, ScreenDaily reports that Dough was released on 19 screens (mostly in London I suspect) and achieved a very respectable £2,700 per screen over the weekend. Again, I suspect a strong Jewish vote of confidence. If it does turn up near you, give it a go for the performances and some decent laughs.
Most of the reviews of Dheepan (and some ‘comment pieces’) have been concerned with one or other – or both – of two issues. The first concerns the fact that the film won the Palme d’Or and the second that the narrative suddenly escalates into extreme violence and an unconvincing or even ‘ludicrous’ ending. Since I don’t want to ‘spoil’ the narrative with the film still on release in the UK, it’s difficult to tackle these issues in detail. I’ll tread carefully.
I’m not that bothered by who wins the big prize at Cannes but it is interesting to discuss what possible criteria the jury might use and to think about what impact winning the prize has on subsequent distribution and reception of the winning film. Jacques Audiard has experienced a gradually rising profile as a director since his first feature Regarde les hommes tomber (See How They Fall) in 1994. He’s produced just seven features in 21 years – an indication of the care he takes with each one. Before 1994 he was known primarily as a screenwriter. The films are not all the same in terms of their genre elements, although he has been seen as following his father, the screenwriter/director Michel Audiard, in helping to keep alive the French action/crime genre, the polar. I’ve enjoyed all of Audiard’s films but the two most interesting and powerful, for me, have been A Self-Made Hero (1996) and The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005). The first is a postmodern comedy-fantasy which investigates the myth of ‘Resistance’ in France during and immediately after the Second World War. The second is a re-working of James Toback’s US film Fingers from 1978 in which a young thug running a property racket tries to return to being a classical pianist like his dead mother. There are some elements of both these films in Dheepan. But there are also elements of Un prophète (2009), the film that really gave Audiard ‘lift-off’ and I suspect that for some audiences it is that film and the next, Rust and Bone (2012), that first come to mind in thinking about Audiard – and therefore in thinking about his Cannes prize film.
The Palme d’Or seems to me to go every now and again to an American film, including fairly mainstream genre films if the director is seen as ‘special’ in some way (Tarantino, Michael Moore, The Coen Brothers). Mostly it goes to one of a group of international auteurs. French winners are often controversial (e.g. Blue Is the Warmest Colour in 2013). I suspect that Dheepan for some is not the art film they might be expecting. And part of that expectation might be that it will in some way be a social-realist account of migration from Sri Lanka and how refugees attempt to build new lives in a new country. There are French films that do this in some ways and there is a Cannes precedent with prizes for the Dardenne Brothers and The Silence of Lorna (Belgium-France 2008). But Dheepan is not that kind of film.
Plot Outline (no spoilers)
‘Dheepan’ played by Antonythasan Jesuthasan is a former ‘Tamil Tiger’ soldier who in a refugee camp in Sri Lanka has to construct a new identity. He finds a woman Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), who in turn finds a 9 year-old girl Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby). The three strangers become a family for the NGO officials and eventually arrive in France where Dheepan is found a job as a caretaker on a run-down estate in the outer suburbs of Paris. The new arrivals struggle to adapt but Dheepan is resourceful and good at his job and Yalini eventually gets a job outside the home. Tensions within the family group are inevitable. Yalini wants to join her cousin in the UK, but she must wait for a passport. Dheepan has nightmares and dreams of an elephant with mottled skin moving through the forest in Sri Lanka. The estate has strict rules and one block is controlled by a drugs gang. But when a local man returns from custody his presence is disruptive. This signals the build-up to conflict. Will the three Tamils survive the violence which seems inevitable?
Not social realism?
In suggesting that this narrative is not about social realism, I’m suggesting the following ‘absences’ from what might be expected of a social realist drama. There are few, if any, signs of the agents of the French state. The ‘family’ arrives in France and travels to Paris in a swift montage of short scenes after they present themselves in the refugee camp. On the estate they deal only with Youssef who appears to be a community leader of some sort (who may well be employed by the state, but isn’t a designated ‘official’). They speak to someone who assigns Illayaal to a special class for non-French speaking children, but gradually Illayaal’s schooling becomes a less important part of the narrative. I thought at first this was a weakness, but on reflection Dheepan decides very early on that the child is Yalini’s responsibility. This is basically Dheepan’s narrative – like four of the other six of Audiard’s films it is a male narrative, although here it is the single older male rather than the ‘father/son’ structure of the other four. When the violence kicks off there are no police to be seen – they never seem to come out to the estate at all. Add to this Dheepan’s nightmares/dreams about the elephant and the film’s resolution – which may be a fantasy, but which anyway is ‘open-ended’ in its meaning. The only scenes ‘off’ the estate and its environs are set during celebrations for the local Tamil/Hindu diaspora and this features a further part of Dheepan’s story when he meets an exiled leader of the Tamil Tigers.
There are some ‘procedural’ aspects of the drama. We see Dheepan working very effectively as a caretaker. We also see Yalini succeeding at her job. Both of these sequences are important functional plot elements – they help to explain how/why the final events occur. However, I think the most important elements refer to Dheepan and his state of mind. Some reviews criticise the film because it seems ‘unrealistic’ and doesn’t explore the migrant/refugee ‘issue’. Even the highly-respected French film scholar Ginette Vincendeau refers to these two points in her Sight and Sound review. More problematic for me is the Guardian film blog ‘commentary’ by Caspar Salmon entitled ‘Why Dheepan’s take on immigration isn’t helpful‘. Salmon argues that the film doesn’t represent the reality of life on le cité, the Parisian housing estate. But what we see is essentially what Dheepan sees from his perspective as a former Tamil Tiger. He isn’t representative of most refugees in France, he’s a trained fighter and battle-hardened. He acts from within that mindset. Whether the estate itself is depicted in a ‘realistic’ manner I can’t say but there are certain parallels with La haine (1995) and Girlhood (2014), both of which stylise the buildings and the community to some extent. I’m willing to accept that there aren’t likely to be as many firearms around on a real estate but that isn’t really relevant here. Audiard has created an exciting drama which pitches an ex-guerilla fighter against local youths. As one of the comments on Salmon’s piece points out, if this was a criterion for artistic success we never accept most gangster or police procedural stories on film and television.
I’d like to watch the film again before trying to evaluate the film’s success but I’m already convinced that it was a brave decision to go with this story. The three leads have relatively little experience. Srinivasan is from a theatre background in Chennai and Jesuthasan was a boy soldier with the Tamil Tigers before moving to France via Thailand and gaining political asylum aged 25. He has worked in a variety of jobs in France, became a political activist and has developed into an accomplished published author (see Press Kit). The leads all speak Tamil – but all slightly differently (Claudine was born in France). Audiard says that he allowed them to improvise on set – something he might not have done with French-speaking actors. He says he came across the small Tamil community in Paris and wanted to make a ‘Tamil action film’. He argues that it was particularly interesting to explore the world of refugees not associated with French colonialism – although France did have a colony actually situated in Tamil Nadu in the shape of Pondicherry/Puducherry. More convincing is Audiard’s decision to look for new characters and new stories outside the traditional polar. (See interviews with Audiard by Jonathan Romney and Danny Leigh.) Audiard’s next challenge appears to be an English language feature. I’m ambivalent about that decision but I’ll continue to watch his films based on the experience so far.
It’s only March but here is one of the films of the year in the UK. Lore is a profoundly German story based on a British novel and brought to the screen by Australian director Cate Shortland with a German cast and a mixed Australian/German crew. The film was shot across various locations in Germany by the Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw using Super 16mm. Dialogue is in German with English subtitles.
Rachel Seiffert’s novel The Dark Room (2001) comprises three separate stories each of which refers to the impact of the rise and fall of the Nazis in Germany on the personal lives of young characters. ‘Lore’ (short for Hannelore) is one of the three stories/characters. Ms Seiffert wrote the stories when she was still relatively young, attracting immediate attention and a Booker nomination. Her parents are German and Australian and this resonated with Cate Shortland who is married to a German. Shortland wrote the script with Robin Mukherjee, a film and TV writer with experience of stories about children.
Lore is older in the film than in the book as far as I can see. I think she is 16 in the film, though she appears both older and younger in this powerful story. It begins in May 1945 at the end of the war in Germany. Lore is the eldest of five children and her father, a German officer, has returned from the East. The family must flee as the Russians are coming from the East and the Americans from the West. The family reach a country house in Southern Germany, but first the father and then the mother effectively disappear, taken by, or surrendering to, American forces. Lore is left with the responsibility of taking her siblings, including a baby, across defeated Germany, through difficult terrain and across the zones controlled by American, Russian and British troops to her grandmother’s house on an isolated part of the North Sea coast. I’m not sure that geographical accuracy is a crucial element of the journey, but we know that it is a long way and that it is a difficult journey. Not surprisingly Lore learns a lot about herself on the journey. Her younger sister and the twin 8 year-old boys are not really able to help her much.
Lore begins her journey as the daughter of a leading Nazi soldier and the one ‘friend’ she makes on the journey is ‘Thomas’, a young man who might be Jewish. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I won’t refer to specific events, but Lore is forced to confront many difficult questions and she is a changed young woman who arrives at grandmother Omi’s house. Powerful filmmaking like this depends on both great direction and performances. Saskia Rosendahl and Kai Molina are excellent, the casting throughout works very well and especially for the group of children who are the main focus for much of the film. The Press Book (available from the Artificial Eye website) gives some useful background on how the film was made. Much of it was shot in Eastern Germany with ruined houses and landscapes of forests and meadows beautifully presented. The cinematography adds to this with its soft textures in Super 16 and the light and mists of morning and the gloom of forests. The press images don’t really do justice to the landscape and mise en scène of the interiors but the official trailer gives glimpses.
I found this imagery and also elements of the story made me think of other films, for example Katalin Varga another film in which a mother and son take a journey across the landscapes of Transylvania. After the screening, discussing the film with a friend, we both thought of the German concept of ‘Heimat’ that almost indefinable sense of a German attachment to ‘home’/’homeland’. Edgar Reitz made a famous series of films under the title of Heimat from 1984 onwards and indeed there is a genre of German cinema called Heimatfilme which was important in the early 1950s in particular – often set around rural communities with a focus on landscape and folkloric traditions. Heimat was a concept that encapsulated ideas about identity that were corrupted by Nazi ideology in relation to ‘blood and soil’ and ‘Aryan purity’. In that sense, Lore is an anti-Heimatfilm that explores the breakdown of such links and the experiences of young characters brought up within a Nazi family and now facing postwar reality. There is also a German film genre known as Trümmerfilme or ‘rubble films’, a kind of German film noir focusing on the dramas of lives in the rubble of German cities in the immediate post-war years. Most of them were made between 1946 and 1949. The most famous of these in international cinema is ironically a film made by Roberto Rossellini, Germany Year Zero (Italy 1948). As the entry in The Encyclopedia of European Cinema (ed. Ginette Vincendeau, 1995) points out, these films often featured narratives in which the legacy of Nazi ideology played a significant role. Those made in the DDR (East Germany) had specific anti-fascist messages, e.g. The Murderers Are Amongst Us (DDR, 1946). In this context, Lore is a kind of modern version of a rural Trümmerfilme. The film narrative is not ‘resolved’ as such but we are clear that there must have been many teenagers like Lore who grew up in a domestic sphere, confident about their own future only to find themselves confronted with a very different world.
Lore‘s success in only limited distribution has prompted the British Film Institute to award the first funding offer under the new ‘Sleeper’ strand of its Distribution funding screen. £40,000 is available to help Artificial Eye to release the film in ten further cinemas. This funding is only available to distributors who are ‘invited’ to receive it because the film has had good reviews and good box office response on opening. This ‘responsive funding’ is now easier to make work with digital distribution since copies of new ‘prints’ are much easier and cheaper to get to cinemas. However, it is still the case that there aren’t enough screens on which to show films like this. So, please watch out for Lore coming your way – it’s a film not be missed!