Tagged: road movie

GFF20 #17: Lillian (Austria, 2019)

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On the road

This is director Andreas Horvath’s first fiction film (he also edited and composed the music) after making a number of documentaries. One of the fascinating aspects of the film, which was the best I saw at the Glasgow Film Festival, is the degree to which it is fictional. It’s based on a true story of a woman, Lillian Alling, who in the 1920s tried to walk from New York to Russia. She may have succeeded. Lillian is set now and, as far as I can tell, Horvath and his star, Patrycja Planik, improvised the narrative as they took their nine month journey across America. Horvath is credited with the film’s concept, using everyday encounters as the basis. Obviously these would have to be contrived as there was a film crew in tow (although it consisted only of five people). It works in a similar way to Borat (US-UK, 2006) where Sacha Baron-Cohen as the titular reporter traversed America showing up its absurdities. Horvath’s intention is to offer a snapshot of contemporray America. Hollywood Reporter states the film was ‘long-in-the-making’ and, if I remember rightly, there is a rodeo poster for 2013; in an interview Planik states shoot took nine months. Whatever the reason for the long gestation Horvath has produced a stunning piece of work if only in terms of the varying American landscapes we see; the cinematography is stunning. Planik is one of the Foley Artists (these produce the sounds we hear and are used in virtually all filmmaking) and the sounds of her walking are slightly high in mix throughout. Although Planik doesn’t show great range in the role, it is a superb performance in what must have been a gruelling shoot.

I think it’s safe to assume that most of the people Lillian comes across are playing themselves. For example, we see the Nebraskan Sheriff preparing for his day’s work when he gets a call about a ‘walker’ and he goes to investigate. He is both oppressive, searching the young woman, and paternal, giving her a coat for the cold nights. One exception is the role of the lecherous farmer who chases her through cornfields which was taken by the production manager, Chris Shaw.

We pass through Standing Rock where Native Americans are protesting against the environmental impacts of an oil pipeline and hear an inspiring speech. Lillian passes through everything implacably, never speaking or reacting much to her experiences.

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Going west

As she reaches the north west of the continent she finds a road called ‘Highway of Tears’ where a large number of young women (presumably abducted and killed) have disappeared over the years. It’s bucketing down with rain and Lillian plods on filmed from behind a window (or lens) which has so much water (tears) on it she can barely be seen. It is a highly poetic shot that captures the moment.

We’re never clear on the protagonist’s motivations, just as we don’t know what were the original Lillian’s. At the start she is trying to get work in hard core porn but as she’s overstayed her visa even that line of work is impossible for her. She’s advised to go back to Russia, ironically described as ‘the land of opportunity’, and decides to walk there after finding a map in a house she’s apparently broken into.

Without spoiling the ending, I will only say, at first, it seemed to be a serious misstep when we meet indigenous people at the Bering Straits and are regaled with an ancient story about treating the natural world with respect. Throughout the journey we hear, no doubt authentic, homey radio broadcasts talking about unseasonable weather and it’s clear that climate catastrophe looms over the film. When I linked the two, the ending ‘clicked’ and it works superbly to conclude the film. It’s a road movie where it’s the spectator that goes on a ‘learning journey’ not the characters; Lillian is a ‘cipher’ on which we can project our own feelings.

Queen & Slim (US 2019)

This photo, taken ‘diegetically’ in the narrative, has been used in promotions for the film

Queen & Slim is a début feature film for Melina Matsoukas working with the prolific writer Lena Waithe, the first African-American woman to win a ‘comedy writer’ Emmy for her work on the series Master of None (2015). Waithe was also a producer on Dear White People (US 2014). Matsoukas has had a long career as a music video director topped by her contribution to Beyoncé’s Lemonade. It’s not surprising then that two such talented women should enable Jodie Turner-Smith to create the character ‘Queen’. It’s a terrific performance and with Daniel Kaluuya as ‘Slim’ they make a memorable couple.

The film came to the UK with some glowing reviews after its US release in November 2019, but there was little UK promotion – at least from my perspective – and I didn’t really know what to expect. But there were two reasons I wanted to see it. First, I knew that it begins with an altercation between a white police officer and the black couple after he stops their car with the result that they are forced to go ‘on the run’ with every police force looking for them. This links directly to the earlier The Hate U Give (US 2018) which I have worked on as a possible study text. There is also a later incident the film that directly links the two films as well. Second, I read somewhere that the narrative in some way references the idea of the ‘Underground Railroad’ by which slaves were able to escape from plantations and eventually to get to Canada in the pre-Civil War period. This was recently the central part of the story of Harriet Tubman in Harriet (US 2019).

The first meeting in a fast-food restaurant

Queen & Slim begins in Cleveland, Ohio when two people meet on a Tinder date. It isn’t going terribly well (neither character has a name as yet) and they have only known each other for a short time when their car is pulled over. What follows is perhaps best presented as a mash-up of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) with It Happened One Night (1934). If that sounds unlikely note that both these classic films are road movies. In one a bunch of ‘outlaws’ rob banks during the Great Depression, become media celebrities and are often admired by people whose savings and land have been ‘grabbed’ by those same banks. In the other, a man and a woman meet on a bus travelling to New York and somehow fall in love despite their differences.

In Queen & Slim, the couple make their way South and have a series of adventures on their way to Florida from where they hope to get to Cuba. They become ‘Queen’ and ‘Slim’ when they attempt to change their appearance at Queen’s Uncle Earl’s house. It’s at this moment perhaps that the film’s approach becomes clear (or rather, is confirmed). This isn’t strictly a ‘Hollywood realism’ film. There are moments when the characters do unexpected or plain stupid things which place them in more danger. Just one example – when they change clothes, Queen chooses a micro-dress which is so short it reveals the bandage on her thigh. Slim selects an outfit I don’t know how to describe but which appears to deliberately ‘type’ him. A little later they agree to be photographed and the resultant image is used on the film’s poster. Nick Lacey commented to me that the image is both striking but also possibly plays on the typing of both African-American men and women.

Queen’s Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine) and his ‘Goddess’ (Indya Moore)

The Bonnie and Clyde tag is applied to the couple by one of the characters and it soon becomes clear that wherever they go in the South, African-Americans (and some white people) know who they are but still help them avoid the police. The Underground Railway reference is also clear when the couple are hidden in a clever way during a police search. These attitudes towards the ‘fugitives’ are also linked to various discourses about how working-class Americans (again mostly but not solely African-Americans) have been treated by government policies and institutional racism.

This is a long film (132 mins) and many commentators have argued that it is too long for the material. I don’t agree, I was engaged throughout and I felt I grew to know the characters. The film was shot, on film, by the British DoP Tat Radcliffe who shares a background with the director in music videos, but who has also worked on action features such as ’71 (UK 2014). Almost the whole film was shot on location in and around Cleveland and New Orleans. The film looks good in a ‘Scope frame and Radcliffe tells us (in this Kodak piece) that in the first part of the film, the camera is often static or ‘locked’ but towards the end there is much more Steadicam work. Radcliffe praises the director’s eye for detail and I was impressed by the use of landscapes and the detail of neighbourhood scenes. Too often Hollywood films seem to show the same nondescript city environments but this felt different (because of the New Orleans location, I couldn’t help thinking about Easy Rider (1969), a film with several similar elements).

A production shot with director Melina Matsoukas

One of the most enjoyable scenes in the film for me is a quick visit to a roadside bar with a live blues band. The band are fantastic and at this stage we are still surprised that everyone knows who this couple are – and Queen and Slim are still learning about each other. The music throughout the film is interesting, but I’m not really competent to comment on much of it. IMDB seems to have failed to find the music credits but lists of the songs and the artistes are available. I still can’t find who plays the live music in the bar. Does anybody know?

I’ve seen a negative comment about the fact that once again the leads in an African-American film are Brits. Jodie Turner-Smith was born in Peterborough but has lived in the US for some time and appeared in US film and TV productions. Daniel Kaluuya must be getting fed-up with this. Cynthia Erivo was also caught up with this kind of comment about her role in Harriet. I’m not sure whether her Oscar nomination  improved matters. I don’t really understand this. Brits have always been part of Hollywood casting. Perhaps it is part of a commentary about roles for black actors in both the UK and US. There are far more opportunities in the US so it isn’t surprising Brits are often keen to go over.

Queen and Slim is an excellent début and definitely a film worth looking up.

The trailer below reveals quite a few aspects of the plot and a couple of the best gags.

3 Faces (Iran 2018)

Poster for 3 Faces dir. Jafar Panahi

Not shown on general release, to my knowledge, in Bradford, I was able to catch this courtesy of Bradford’s Literature Festival. It is the fourth of director Jafar Pahani’s films in his eighth year of a filmmaking ban in Iran. The film shares its guerilla-style filmmaking practices with the earlier films but is more adventurous in exploring a form of road movie. It opens with a ‘selfie’ film made on her phone by a young woman. She’s pleading for a rescue from her conservative family in her village home in the far North West of Iran where Azeri (or ‘Turkish’ as the locals call it) is the common language. She threatens suicide and the film is sent to the well-known film and TV actress Behnaz Jafari via the film director Jafar Panahi (both playing themselves). Distraught, Jafari insists Panahi take her to the girl’s village – abandoning her own filming schedule in the process.

The villages used in the film are those of Panahi’s own mother, father and grandparents, so he felt comfortable making a film there. There are several diversions on the way but eventually the cave where the video was shot is found and the young woman’s family in the village is identified. But this isn’t a thriller or a mystery. It’s a road movie with encounters. It’s also a fiction in which the two leads play themselves and their own personal narratives are woven into the story.

The Press Notes for the film reveal that the idea for the story came from one of many social media messages that the director receives. One day he received an Instagram message from a young would-be filmmaker which disturbed him and then he read a newspaper report about a young woman who committed suicide because she wasn’t allowed to make films. It’s difficult to discuss the film without spoilers but I’ll try to limit them. All I will say about the plot is that the title may refer to three women – the young woman in distress, the actor and an older woman in the village who has been ostracised because she was a performer before the revolution in 1979.

A local celebration blocks the mountain road . . .

I’m further indebted to the Press Notes for a commentary on what Panahi hoped to achieve. The film provides him with a way of exploring the history of Iranian Cinema and the obstacles that filmmakers have faced in pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary periods. He even makes use of a single track mountain road which perhaps acts as a metaphor for the timeline of Iranian Cinema. The road winds around headlands which requires drivers to use their horns and listen for answering horns – and then follow a strict code of signals in sequence to discover whether to drive on or wait for an on-coming vehicle to pass. This is just one of the local traditions that visitors from Tehran must negotiate.

Behnaz Jafar is recognised by the women in the village . . .

However, the remoteness of the region doesn’t mean local people are not aware of what is happening in Tehran. Behnaz Jafari is quickly recognised and the Press Notes suggest that villagers were actually watching her in a TV programme when Panahi arrived to film a scene. As the director and the actor travel around the village and stay overnight, the film offers a range of examples of the opposition between tradition and modernity, much of which is based on the patriarchal attitudes in the villages – though the women show themselves to be resourceful in counteracting the effects of their treatment by men. There is a neat balance between the solidarity of the three female ‘performers’ and the interaction between Panahi and one of the male elders who insists that Panahi must perform a ritual for him and his son and who references the star status of a popular male actor who was forced to flee Iran after the revolution, but still stands as a role model for ‘masculinity’.

One of the director’s stranger encounters is with an old woman who sleeps in the grave she has had dug . . .

Reading through reviews of the film, I note that several writers refer to similar films by Abbas Kiarostami. I did myself think of both Through the Olive Trees (1994) and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999). The first of these films is part of a trilogy of films in which Kiarostami explores the relationship between a director (based on himself), real events and the actors who play in the director’s films. In the second, journalists from Tehran, one posing as an engineer, travel to a Kurdish village in a remote area to ‘observe’ the mourning rituals for a woman who is supposedly about to die. There is clearly a connection of sorts here, but Kiarostami doesn’t play himself and I think there is a different ‘feel’ in Panahi’s films. Where Kiarostami’s films appear enigmatic and intellectual, Panahi’s films feel more direct. He shows us scenes and leaves us to decide what to make of them via his guidance as a character in the narrative. Early in the narrative there is the suggestion that Behnaz Jafari is a little suspicious of his actions and thinks that this might be a set-up. In fact, the whole film is a set-up, but it seems pretty clear to me what Panahi wants to say.

Jafar Panahi is a deeply humanist director and his ability to make four films while banned shows his commitment and determination. It’s amazing that they turn out so well (the three I’ve seen, at least) and I look forward to whatever appears next.

Helle Nächte (Bright Nights, Germany-Norway 2017)

I first came across Thomas Arslan in 2011 when five of his films were shown at the Bradford International Film Festival. He also visited the festival and took part in a formal Q&A as well as chatting to several of us in the bar. He seemed like a really nice guy, but perhaps a little diffident for a film director. I enjoyed his films and I’ve looked out for them ever since but I don’t think any of them have got a UK release and I haven’t caught any of them at festivals.

Thomas Arslan press photo for Bright Nights

I got the chance to see Bright Nights because of a promotion offered at the Glasgow Film Festival by the streaming service MUBI. I’ll report in full on what a month of MUBI films might look like a little later. Bright Nights is a title that refers to a trip to Northern Norway in the summer undertaken by Michael (Georg Friedrich). Michael is a guy in his late 40s, a construction site manager living in Berlin with his younger partner Leyla (Marie Leuenberger). At the beginning of the narrative he has just heard that his father, who he hasn’t seen for five years, has died from a heart attack in Norway where he has been based since his retirement. When Michael’s sister says she won’t be going to the funeral, Michael decides to take his 14 year-old son Luis (Tristan Göbel) who he has barely seen since his divorce.

One of the typical static shots as Michael and Leyla look out over the city

Thomas Arslan has a very distinctive film style. His films are often short and this one lasts just under 86 minutes. Arslan’s DoP Reinhold Vorschneider carefully composes static shots which are sometimes held without any discernible action on screen. In an interview on Cineuropa, Arslan responded to the suggestion that he had chosen a ‘relaxed’ pace:

I don’t really think about films in terms of fast or slow. That’s too formal a way to look at it, and I don’t work like that at all. I tried to bring the appropriate rhythm to this very particular story, without being bound by general conceptual rules.

That strikes me as the answer of someone who thinks a lot about how he does things. My own feeling is that he is a good judge of pacing. Yes, shots are held a long time but I didn’t find that off-putting. I should also note that the music by Ola Fløttum (who has worked with Ruben Östlund and Joachim Trier) and the film editing by Reinaldo Pinto Almeida complement the camerawork very well. Added to the pacing is Arslan’s wish to show not tell so the viewer needs to be alert to look around the image for visual clues rather than expecting dialogue to do the job.

Michael and Luis don’t talk much in the car or when they are hiking

After the initial scenes in Berlin (in which Michael learns that Leyla is going to be working in the US for a year, unsettling him further) father and son arrive in Norway for the funeral and then a trip to the far North involving some camping and hiking. Since Luis barely speaks to his father we know this is going to be a difficult trip. When they pick up their rental Land Rover Discovery the film could become a familiar road movie, but there are few ‘adventures’ or interesting encounters. It might be an ‘anti-road movie’ but actually in some ways it becomes a film which conveys very well the the feelings and emotions that can arise on a journey, especially on empty roads in a wild environment. There is a standout sequence lasting over 4 minutes in which the camera simply stares through the windscreen at the road ahead as the vehicle moves through the fog on an upland road. I found this almost a spiritual experience, especially with the music, a synthesiser drone that rises imperceptibly as the car rolls on with the only other sound that of the tyres on the road and the low thrum of the engine. The snow poles which look so odd in the summer landscape reminded me of some roads in the Pennines. Not surprising perhaps but such areas of wilderness are so much more extensive in Norway which looks terrific through Vorschneider’s lens.

The long single take through the windscreen with snow poles showing through the summer mists

Rebuilding a father-son relationship is a relatively common theme in films, but it is rarely achieved with such subtlety as in Bright Nights. At the end of the film, which is mainly composed of long shots, there is none of the emotional catharsis of mainstream movies. There are just a couple of shots in which we search for and find some emotional meaning – and that’s enough.

If you like calm, intelligent and beautifully crafted films, Bright Nights is for you. If you want excitement or a popcorn movie experience, it isn’t. The two leads are both excellent. I thought they seemed familiar and Georg Friedrich was indeed the lead in Aloys (Switzerland-France 2016) which I saw on a plane last year. I’ve got a bit more of an excuse for not recognising Tristan Göbel who was equally good as the 10 year-old boy in the excellent Westen (Germany 2013). I’m delighted to have had the chance to see Bright Lights, now I must find Gold from 2013 with Nina Hoss.

Here’s the German trailer for the film (no English subs), but at least you can get a sense of the cinematography: