I, Daniel Blake told it how it is in Tory Britain; as does Sorry We Missed You. Tory Britain is a place of exploitation, discrimination and a callous, uncaring state that treats working people as an underclass. MP Rees-Mogg’s recent remarks about the Grenfell disaster (the victims didn’t show common sense) is emblematic of how the Conservatives are unfit to rule. There’s only one way that compassionate people who vote Tory will perceive this film: they won’t believe it. That, of course, is a mistake as scriptwriter Paul Laverty does the research and everything in this film has a ‘truth’ which is moulded into a melodrama.
Director Ken Loach is most famous for Cathy Come Home, a 1966 BBC TV drama that led to the creation of the charity Shelter for homeless people. In those days of three television channels a significant proportion of the population watched the same programme at the same time and roughly 12 million people saw the drama (about 25% of the UK population at the time). Nowadays it’s virtually impossible to make anywhere near the same impact. That said, both of Loach’s last two films should have led to the same outrage of 50 years ago.
Sorry We Missed You dramatises the ‘flexible workforce’ beloved of Tory businesses because it reduces their costs and increases profitability (and reduces prices for consumers). However, the human cost to the workers and their families is hidden, except in the liberal press and some Twitter circles; occasionally a tragedy reaches the BBC. For the first half hour of the film I felt I was watching a documentary (the content not the form of the film) as I learned nothing but once I became emotionally engaged with the family’s predicament the film turned into a heartbreaking melodrama (incidentally, once again used as a term of abuse in Mark Kermode’s otherwise reasonable review). The only false note in the film was the under-developed character of the ‘rebellious son’; he veered too much between surly and caring and there was no back story explaining his political awareness.
Typically for Loach’s films the mise en scene is a fairly ugly long lensed affair; he uses telephoto lenses that flatten the scene (so it looked like people were always about to be run over by passing vans in the depot) as a way of getting authentic performances. Moments of humour and lyricism are few but that’s not entirely inappropriate in a film that portrays what nine years of Tory government have done to the country.
This is an effective ‘coming of age’ film from an unlikely source: Kenya. Co-written and directed by Wanuri Kahiu the film was banned in its native country because it ‘promoted lesbianism’. If anything, the film shows how difficult gay love is in a homophobic society so ‘promotion’ doesn’t exactly cover it. The discriminatory formulation harks back to Thatcher’s disgusting ‘section 28’ that, in 1988, was designed to prevent local authorities in Britain from ‘promoting homosexuality’. So disgust with Kenya for banning such a tender, and not explicit, film must be tempered, in the UK, by the acknowledgement that 30 years ago our government was promoting similarly homophobic messages. No doubt our colonial laws, homosexuality was only ‘made legal’ in 1967 in the UK, contributed to the difficulties Kenya has in acknowledging different sexualities.
Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva are superb as the unlikely couple: Kena quiet and withdrawn; Ziki loud and flamboyant. They are daughters of local electioneering politicians which adds a social dimension to the film’s melodrama. The importance of the Christian church in Kenyan society is acknowledged and so is its homophobia. The pastor’s sermon against difference is shown to encourage the attacks Kena and Ziki suffer; Kahiu shoots a mob scene in a genuinely scary manner. The film itself is as brave as its characters.
The film also portrays patriarchal society, particularly through Kena’s dad, as problematic. He seems to be a genuinely nice guy, he owns a shop and happily gives credit to shoppers that seems to be more than part of his campaign for reelection (presumably as a local councillor). However that hasn’t stopped him abandoning his wife for a ‘younger model’.
Ziki allows Kena to fulfil her potential by giving her confidence; initially her ambition was to be a nurse. However, she is obviously bright enough for even more challenging roles in health care. The ending of the film is nicely ambivalent for no matter how much the audience (I doubt homophobes will be still watching at this point) want the couple to be together, that is not a straightforward option in contemporary Kenya.
Writer-director Shola Amoo’s second feature is a semi-autobiographical ‘coming of age’ tale of a black lad who lands in an urban environment after the idyll of a Lincolnshire upbringing. The trope of bad-town versus good-country, inflected by race, are hard to avoid but Amoo deftly challenges some expectations. When we meet young Femi he is being fostered by Mary, superbly played by Denise Black who subtly conveys the conflicts that must be experienced by foster carers: the love and care as well as the pain of departure. It’s no surprise that Femi, when he is moved to Brixton, South London, in the care of an inadequate mum, suffers from the change.
Much of the film focuses on the 16-year-old Femi, approaching his GCSE exams, and his conflicts with local gangs, peer group and teachers. As Akala’s brilliant Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire shows, there are real tropes involved in growing up as a black lad in an inner city environment; they are not simply generic. The need to act ‘tough’ and portray a hard image, that Akala describes, is superbly showed in the film when we’re party to Femi listening to The Cure on his headphones but tells his mate it’s Tupac. Sensitivity in males is not much of an option, neither are Femi’s dalliances with crime, another accessory of the poverty-stricken environment. Sam Adewumni brilliantly portrays the conflicts that lurk beneath his tough demeanour. Amoo strikingly uses extreme close-ups, and the soundtrack, to create expressionist moments that emphasise it’s Femi’s experience we are sharing.
Nicholas Pinnock is suitably charismatic in the role of a sympathetic teacher and, generally, I found the classroom scenes authentic (I am an ex-teacher) which is not my usual experience. However, I’m not sure how many teachers go ‘above and beyond’ the way Pinnock’s does but this is melodrama so exaggeration is more than acceptable. I couldn’t work out the symbolism of ‘the last tree’; though trees are often present in the mise en scene; then again, trees are often present wherever you are (apparently there are more trees than people in London).
If there is a false note in the film then it is the concluding scenes in Lagos, Nigeria. Femi is introduced to his father and while it is clear that Amoo is not suggesting that going ‘back to Africa’ is a solution, I was slightly puzzled by the ending on the beach. Maybe it’s not about Africa but a reference to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (France, 1960), the classic nouvelle vague ‘coming of age’ film. Regardless, The Last Tree is well worth seeing and Amoo is a talent to watch.
It’s heartening that writer-director-editor Mark Jenkin’s Bait is doing decent business at the UK box office. A low budget, black and white film about Cornish fisherman could easily get swamped by the flotsam from mainstream distributors. What Bait has is a USP (unique selling point) as its ‘low-fi’ Bolex camera approach offers difference to jaded palettes; manna for the bourgeoisie. It is also an excellent film.
One moan first: the film is scored with scratches as if it was an old classic on 16mm that has been in distribution, and maltreated, for decades. These look as if they have been digitally added as they appear in patterns not associated with conventional print blemishes. Apparently these were caused, no doubt intentionally, by the unusual processing materials (including coffee and washing soda) Jenkin used. In my eyes it appeared he was trying to age the look of the print and so enhance the analogue ‘authenticity’ of his monochrome cinematography. In other words, it was an unwanted distraction; unless he was trying to be Brechtian? The obvious post-synching of the sound also supports ‘estrangement’ from the film.
Jenkin has written a Dogme95 style manifesto, ‘Silent Landscape Dancing Grain 13’, which ironically appears to be only available on Facebook (which I won’t use). Here is a screenshot from:
Fortunately he hasn’t followed Dogme95 with his approach to composition, and one of the pleasures of the film is the beautiful mise en scene. Unusually there are a number of sequences of montage-editing; another anti-realist technique with Brechtian associations. Overall it struck me as a brilliant debut where the director stretches every sinew to make the film interesting; sometimes he over-reaches himself but there’s no danger of blandness.
I’m not sure what the ‘bait’ of the title is (Ian Mantgani says, “The double-meaning of the title – literal fishing bait and the colloquialism meaning something flagrantly shady”) but the film focuses on the economical difficulties of the traditional fishing industry in Cornwall. Absent landlords arrive at the start to rent out cottages to tourists who want ‘peace and quiet’ whilst the protagonist, Martin (superbly played by comedian Edward Rowe), obstinately sticks to the ‘old ways. His daily routine is shown in realist detail but he also talks to what appears to be the ghost of his dad putting an expressionist mix into the narrative; this is daring and successful. The use of sound is also occasionally anti-realist, for example, objects fall with more weight than they contain, reverberating with their significance rather than simply being caused by molecules of air.
In his Sight & Sound review (September) Jonathan Romney interestingly suggests the film’s form can be compared to comic-book frames and the obviously post-synched dialogue to speech balloons. The framing does use sudden extreme close-ups which is certainly comic-book like. In addition, in some sequences the frames almost appear to be shuffled as inter-cutting between scenes (in the same and different spaces) is very rapid indeed.
There’s no reason why Jenkin’s ‘hand-made’ approach shouldn’t work with other subject matter but, clearly, he was well at home with the difficulties of Cornish fishermen. It’s a fascinating debut.