The Workshop directed and co-written by Laurent Cantet is currently screening on BBC iPlayer until early January. Cantet is a celebrated auteur who won the Cannes Palme d’Or in 2008 for Entre les murs (The Class). He has a distinctive approach to narratives that often create tensions inside groups of people in provocative ways.
The Workshop is inspired by a real event in 1999 when an English novelist was invited to run a writing workshop for young people in the small coastal town of La Ciotat on the French Mediterranean coast between Marseille and Toulon. The workshop featured in a French Cultural TV programme. Cantet thought about making a film at that time but switched to another project, only to return in 2016 and write a script with Robin Campillo, a long time collaborator who in 1999 had worked as an editor on the TV original programme. The new context, during the period when France suffered a series of high profile terror attacks, proved to be stimulating in various ways.
There are several important issues that feed into the social, cultural, economic and political context of the film. La Ciotat is a small town of only around 34,000. It has an important place in film history as the location of the summer residence of the Lumière Brothers. One of the earliest films by the Lumières, L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat was first shown in February 1896 in Paris. La Ciotat was also a major shipbuilding centre and the first French shipyard to produce steamships in the mid 19th Century using imported British technologies. In the 1970s it became known for the construction of oil tankers and bulk carriers, very large ships, eventually of up to 300,000 tons. In the late 1980s French shipbuilding was ‘rationalised’ and the yard was shut, although the workers campaigned to keep it open. Gradually the town began to focus on tourism and developed a yacht marina. The shipbuilding legacy saw yacht repairs and specialist boatbuilding return with far fewer jobs. Shipbuilding is the ‘heritage’ of the town, supported by local cultural projects, hence the writing workshop – a community-based event. But do the current generation of young people feel connected to the history of the town?
The coastline of the old province of Provence runs from Marseille to the Italian border and offers a mix of the industrial and the touristic with a focus on art and entertainment on the Cote d’Azur as well as the main naval port of Toulon. It figures prominently in French cinema, joyfully in a film like Jules et Jim (1962) and more intriguingly in Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965). What is important is that as the major French region with ports for direct contact with North Africa, this is also a region with Maghrebi families now into second and third generations as well as the returned settlers after the independence of the French colonies in the Maghreb. So the region has widespread support for Front Nationale/National Rally, whereas de-industrialisation has weakened support for the Socialists and Communists.
Cantet is careful not to provide too much background to the workshop and how the seven young people (four male, three female) were selected. Some have genuine ambitions to be writers, but others may just be bored or pressurised to come by the local job centre or by parents. It is important though that this group is representative of the town in terms of ethnicity, social class and religion. Although it is very much a group, the events push forward Antoine (an outstanding performance by Matthieu Lucci who has since gone on to appear in other film and TV productions). Ironically, Antoine claims that he doesn’t want to speak and feigns disinterest but when he does speak he is provocative and therefore potentially disruptive, but also intelligent and clearly engaged with a range of ideas. At one point he watches a French Armed Forces recruitment video and suggests that he might join the army. France has the largest armed forces in Europe and is active in many parts of the world. There is no conscription in France and instead promotional events and ‘taster’ drives prove effective in recruiting. The prospect of army life as an alternative to the lack of employment openings for young people links L’atelier to films like Les combattants (France 2014) with its central character of a highly educated young woman determined to join up.
Antoine proves to be someone who the novelist Olivia (Marina Foïs), the workshop leader, feels compelled to confront. She finds him mysterious and, perhaps unwisely, decides to engage with him outside the workshop. This gives Cantet the opportunity to develop a possible thriller. I don’t wish to spoil the narrative in any way so I’ll stop there. This is an intelligent film, but one that is complex in terms of what it is exploring – which isn’t the kind of action narrative that mainstream audiences expect. The ending of the film will not satisfy everyone but seemed to me to work very well. I think it’s time to go back and look at some of Laurent Cantet’s other films sitting in my DVD pile.
My final film in this year’s Cheltenham International Film Festival (still available online here) was proably the best; vying with Antigone and Rounds for the accolade. Narratively it’s a conventional ‘coming of age’ story however as it’s set on an Innu reservation in Quebec, the cultural difference is sufficient to make it stand out. Add to that the marvellous central performance of Sharon Fontaine Ishpatao as Mikuan and Myriam Verreault’s confident direction, we get a cracking film. The film’s based on Naomi Fontaine’s impressionistic novel and the ethnically white Verreault ensured that she would be sensitive in adapting the novel through getting to know the Innu community as well as recruiting Fontaine as co-writer.
I’m guessing that the narrative is autobiographical, in general if not in the detail. Orla Smith, at the start of her interview with Fontaine and Verreault, states:
Kuessipan is an Innu word meaning, “It’s your turn.” That sentiment inspired Noami Fontaine’s novel of the same name: living in Quebec, away from the Innu community she was born in, she was confused by white people’s notions that Indigenous Canadians were this strange ‘other’. Fontaine decided it was the Innu people’s turn to tell their own story, and so she wrote Kuessipan.
This Othering of difference that reduces the diversity of a cultural group into a homogenous, and often misunderstood, blob is, of course, a huge problem. One of the functions of art is to get us to understand others and the film does that superbly with its ‘warts and all’ portrayal of thepoverty-stricken reservation life. Ishpatao portrays the vulnerability and strength of her character who is pushing against the limitations of roots and against the way she is seen by white people; she’s in a limbo and so it seems, at times, that she belongs nowhere. Mikuan has a tough time personally, with added melodramatic family tragedies, but has the inner strength needed to combat adversity.
Verreault, in her feature film debut, brilliantly integrates actors and non-actors and so the film’s authenticity comes from more than the location shooting. When Mikuan joins a school writing group it feels the scene has been created through improv so convincing is the interaction; and her poetry is great.
An interview with the lead actors, Ishpatao and Yamie Grégoire who plays Shaniss Mikuan’s ‘friend for life’, states there is more indigenous filmmaking happening in the area and it would be great if we could get more of it on the festival circuit. Particularly if they’re as good as this.
Based on Sophocles’ play, writer-director Sophie Deraspe has made a vital, ambitious film for today: the issue of protest, which is one of the film’s manifold threads, is especially vital at the moment and long may that continue. Nahéma Ricci, in a stand-out performance, plays the titular character who is a ‘good girl’ immigrant in Quebec whose brother gets into trouble with police because of his gang affiliations. As in the Greek play, Antigone puts herself in a position to sacrifice her future for her brother and, more widely, her family. If occasionally the film over-stretches credulity that matters little when the narrative has such ambition. Some of the subjects it tries to deal with are: social media campaigning; poorly trained youth offender staff; recalcitrant courts; politicians; citizenship rules and so on. Even if Deraspe bites off more than a film can chew readily it is an exhilarating watch.
By ‘good girl’ I mean Antigone is a model student who is determined to do well and she is an academic star. In a scene early in the film she makes a class presentation about how she arrived in Canada. At first the students are disinterested however when they wake up to the fact they are hearing about childhood trauma they, like the audience, are riveted by Antigone’s performance. The scene is typical of a superbly directed film that allows the audience’s understanding to grow as the action progresses and, right at its end, we see the teacher moving forward as she realises the trauma of what Antigone has said.
The film has the trajectory of a ‘youth picture’ except where, usually, the ‘growing up’ is done through sexual awakening, here it is Antigone’s growing realisation of the politics of being an immigrant. She starts as a ‘naive’ youth who believes that truth will lead to justice and learns a tough lesson and leaves us with an ambiguous ending.
On a negative note, the montage sequences illustrating how social media responded to Antigone’s campaign jar slightly with the aesthetics of the film. The habit most people have of using phones in ‘portrait’ position, thus severely restricting what can be seen, allows three phone screens to be shown across the film frame, with a hip hop soundtrack. Whilst this is meant to indicate the impact of her campaign it doesn’t work as it’s only Antigone’s boyfriend who we see involved in getting her message across. It’s a minor criticism for, as I’ve said, you can’t downgrade a film for ambition.
Ricci is superb at conveying the intensity of someone who has not yet been downtrodden by the system, unlike many of her fellow inmates whose rebellion consists of shouting and swearing. Deraspe even gets Tiresias into a particularly chilling scene. The film won best Canadian feature at the Toronto film festival and was Canada’s foreign language entry for the Oscars and it’s definitely one to catch at Cheltenham here.
Shahrbanoo Sadat’s third film as a writer-director was screened in Cannes Directors’ Fortnight in 2019, following her well-received Wolf and Sheep which won an award at Cannes in 2016. The Orphanage is currently streaming on MUBI. Sadat is a young Afghan director based in Denmark and her films are part of the general trend towards European-backed films from various Asian territories, enabling new directors to create festival films and a foothold in the international film market, even when the infrastructure may not be available for features in their home country.
The Orphanage is set in Russian occupied Kabul in 1988. Qodrat has been sleeping in an abandoned car and hustling outside a cinema, selling key-rings and acting as a ticket tout. We see him in the audience for Shahenshah (India 1988), an Amitabh Bachchan starrer. The male crowd is enjoying Amitabh’s superior fighting skills and singing along to a dance sequence. But somebody has perhaps complained about being cheated by Qodrat and he is picked up by Russians who put him in an orphanage. He later tells the authorities that he is 15 and that he has a mother but that his father is dead. At first sight the orphanage appears a relatively laid-back institution, especially in comparison with the Iranian orphanage in the film Son-Mother (Iran-Czech Republic 2019) that I saw earlier this year at the Glasgow Film Festival.
Qodratollah Qadiri, the actor who plays Qodrat also appeared in Sadat’s previous film. The camera certainly likes him and he makes an attractive lead character. Having said that, The Orphanage is not a conventional youth picture and, though Qodrat is the lead, the narrative does focus on a number of other characters, almost in a documentary style presentation of the orphanage before returning to Qodrat’s perspective. His unique vision is on four occasions presented in fantasy sequences which transport the scene he is witnessing into familiar Hindi cinema set pieces with a careful music track matching late 1980s action and romance films. These are entertaining but what is their meaning? They appear to work to emphasise the way in which Afghan youths like Qodrat must try to survive the dangers of their changing environments when they lack any clear understanding of what is actually happening. I’m not sure the fantasy sequences ‘work’ but they certainly offer something different and they feel ‘authentic’ as a response. It seems unlikely that Sadat will have seen Lindsay Anderson’s if . . . . (1968) but that film includes similar sequences in a British ‘public school’ setting.
Because events are seen from the perspective of Qodrat and the other young people in the orphanage, there is no attempt to explain the major events in Kabul as such. Qodrat and many of the other young people don’t speak Russian, yet announcements are often made in Russian and at one point the girls and boys of the orphanage are flown to Moscow and taken to a pioneer camp. The boys are awkward around the girls and fantasise about some of the female teachers. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the film for me was the relatively liberal feel of the orphanage and the school (it’s not clear if the orphanage is part of the school or vice versa) and the general representation of Russian administrators. The young people seem to have quite a lot of freedom to play football, swim in the river, explore their environs etc. They are well fed and they are offered education (though the script seems a bit hazy on this – Qodrat is deemed to be ‘uneducated’ by his own admission, but he seems able to cope with reading and writing). The only downside seems to be the building next door which houses ‘crazy people’ (as the subtitles translate the dialogue and the credits list the players), possibly suffering from forms of PTSD. The narrative ends at the point when the Russians suddenly leave and the mujahideen occupy Kabul.
The answers to most of my questions about the film are in the statement provided by the director on the MUBI website:
While working on The Orphanage, I was fighting with two clichés. One ‘orphanage’ and the other ‘Afghanistan’. I wanted to show an orphanage where my best friend Anwar Hashimi lived for almost eight years during the years 1984-1992 in Kabul.The orphanage I wanted to talk about was not one of those orphanages that we see in movies or we read about in books, where children are starving or having a really miserable life, and they get beaten and have to work. It was the opposite.
This Is Not Berlin is a stylish and exciting picture set in Mexico City around the time of the 1986 World Cup and shot in ‘Scope with a strong music soundtrack. It focuses primarily on two families with 17 year-old sons at a local high school. At first I thought it might be a conventional youth picture/teen movie. As the narrative begins Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León) appears to be in a dazed state in the midst of a pitched battle between two local high schools. In the next few scenes his taste in music is mocked by his mates. He is with his best friend Gera (José Antonio Toledano) when they come across Gera’s 18 year-old sister Rita (Ximena Romo) and her boyfriend kissing passionately. Next morning Gera is renting out his father’s girlie magazines to his classmates. It’s not long, however, before the narrative develops a rather different feel. Carlos clearly has his eye on Rita but she ignores him until she discovers his electronics skills. When he is able to fix the electronic keyboard used by the band in which Rita is the singer, he and Gera are invited to a performance at Azteca, a new underground club. This proves to be a real eye-opener for Carlos. He is introduced to new music, performance art, new drugs and a developing LGBTQ scene.
This is the fourth feature by director Hari Sama. His career has involved an equal interest in film and music and many of his projects seem to have been autobiographical in some way. He was born in 1967 so This Is Not Berlin has been taken as drawing on his experiences in the mid-1980s. As several reviewers have noted, what he offers is a fairly objective view of young people searching for an identity at a specific time in Mexico. According to this interesting review by Alistair Ryder for ‘Gay Essential website, Sama identifies as ‘queer (but not as gay’). What Sama can clearly represent is a mixture of 80s music and performance art that even someone like me, with not much interest in either, can find engaging and exciting. Carlos is attracted in particular to the art created by photographer Nico, but is he ready for Nico’s sexual advances? Carlos is a very attractive young man and also very creative. It’s not long before he is accepted by Nico’s group and becomes part of the stunts they organise – including a performance piece opposing the homophobia of football – in the midst of the World Cup. But the more Carlos (or ‘Charly’ as Nico calls him) becomes involved, the more he moves away from Gera and his schoolfriends – and his family.
The film is also a family melodrama. In fact it is a genuine hybrid, mixing several repertoires. I’ve read various reviews, mostly from the Sundance screenings of the film early in 2019 (it was picked up by Samuel Goldwyn Films and released in the US in August 2019). Many discuss the music, the queer discourse and the ‘coming of age’ narrative, but few mention the family, especially in relation to social class. The two families seem to me to belong to a ‘European’ middle class living in the outer commuter belt of Mexico City. Sama in the Press Notes tells us this is meant to be Lomas Verdes (‘Green Hills’). Wikipedia tells me this is 7 miles from the centre and describes it as ‘upper middle class’. But this puzzles me. Two well-known films that have something in common with This Is Not Berlin are Roma (2018) and Y tu mamá también (2001), but in both these cases the families have live-in servants, usually mestizos or indigenous people. Sama’s two families don’t have servants as far as I can remember. He describes them in the notes as “broken families, conservative and dysfunctional”. Carlos lives in what seems a relatively small house with his mother Carolina (played by a criminally under-used Marina de Tavira, the mother in Roma) and his much younger brother. Carolina seems severely depressed and possibly dependent on prescription drugs. We don’t learn much about Gera’s parents until the final scenes. Sama argues that the youth of these families in effect found a family ‘on the streets’ and eventually in the ‘post-punk’ underground. They were the children of parents who had experienced the political upheavals of 1968 and the early 1970s (the focus in Roma).
The focus on music in This Is Not Berlin links it to Y tu mamá también, but that is a film that looks outward from Mexico City to explore a ‘national metaphor’ and to encounter the mestizo and indigenous peoples of the South West. The only direct contact, as I remember in This Is Not Berlin, between the middle class European youth and the ‘other’ Mexicans, is at an outdoor concert (much like the entertainments in Roma) on waste ground where Rita’s band plays and the hostile crowd are not interested in the ‘post-punk’ synth-based music. The local band (of mestizos?) sport mohicans and play music more recognisably ‘punk’ in the UK sense. I should also point out that the film opens with a quote from Proust and the film’s title comes from a comment, a put-down of Nico, in a brief but telling political argument in which Nico is accused of just imitating European art movements. You are not a true artist he is told. The politics go further, Nico’s friends are accused of “just partying” all the time with AIDS spreading while they take no notice.
The music genre question also permeates the family melodrama. Hari Sama has a small role himself as Carlos’ uncle, his mother’s brother. He wears leathers and rides a motor-bike and his musical taste appears to have developed through listening to old blues guys like Lightning Hopkins, whose more melodic guitar playing seems to have influenced Carlos in turn. The uncle also turns out to be the engineer who encourages Carlos to develop his talents and think of electronics engineering as something to pursue. Early on in the film Gera scoffs at Carlos for playing a track and praising the guitarwork which Gera dismisses as ‘country’. Meanwhile Rita identifies herself with Patti Smith’s poetry in a school literature class. There have been criticisms of This Is Not Berlin because it doesn’t have a strong narrative drive. This is odd, since at one point I thought the structure was becoming too conventional and I was concerned about how the eventual ‘high life’ that Carlos was pursuing would eventually come crashing down. I won’t spoil the narrative resolution and I did eventually come to appreciate the mix of cultural and political issues in the film. Having said that, I think it is the case that the film raises too many narrative possibilities that can’t all be pursued. But better too many than missing some out altogether?
Much of the impact of the film depends on the cinematography by Alfredo Altamirano which manages to create a variety of moods through fluid movement as well as close-up work and the use of various devices to create textures. Altamarino does not appear to have a long list of feature credits but he is very experienced in shorts and commercials and his work has been featured at many festivals. He has some interesting promo reels on his website here. Overall it is the combination of music, camerawork and art direction – all the creative units – as well as the performances that present this evocation of a period.
This film seems to be destined primarily for streaming, which is a shame as it would be a wow on a big screen. I note that IMDb records a US rating of TV-MA which I understand is a rating for cable TV and streaming? There is a significant amount of nudity (much of it male nudity ) in the film and it’s interesting that this hasn’t stopped the film’s US release. It was due to feature in the BFI’s Flare LGBTQ festival which has had to be postponed. I hope that it will get a UK release of some kind. There are already three other Mexican films available with links that might encourage analysis and further study. As well as the two mentioned above, I would add Güeros (2014) as another film about youth, music and ‘protest’ set in 1999, but harking back to New Wave styles.
If I had such a list I could now tick off Kyrgyzstan as another country from which I’ve seen a film. It’s an affecting coming-of-age drama where Jekshen (Temirlan Asankadyrov) has to deal with an alcoholic dad and a mum who’s found love elsewhere. Co-writer (with Ernest Abdyjaparov) and director Mirlan Abdykalykov marshals his cast of non professionals well though most of the interest derives from the novelty of seeing a place hitherto outside my knowledge.
The most striking aspect is the way children are bullied, by teachers, into bringing money to pay for such things as the school roof. I’m not judging as no doubt the economics of the country necessitate parental contribution; though I suspect, as in most places, there are ‘rich bastards’ who look after themselves. The film, however, doesn’t articulate the inequalities but focuses on Jekshen who, fortunately, is a good runner and a local tradition of combining a naming ceremony for a baby with a race, for which there is a prize, means he has the opportunity to get some cash independently of his pathetic dad.
The finale, inevitably, is a race for a big prize and the ending is nicely ambiguous.
I also saw two films in the ‘Are We There Yet?’ free screenings of dystopian films, Children of Men and District 9. Unfortunately the current crisis caused by the Coronavirus suggests we are there, though the understandable (in most countries except the UK and US) reaction to this does raise the question why governments aren’t treating the climate catastrophe as an emergency as well. Hopefully we won’t end up in a dystopia as portrayed by zombie movies though the supermarket shelves empty (in the UK) of bog rolls and much else does suggest some degree of irrationality amongst the panic buyers. Indeed I heard one woman exclaim, “I’m buying things I don’t need!”
Children of Men remains a great film; the dystopian focus is mainly on the treatment of migrants so its message is even more potent 14 years on. District 9, however, remains a disappointment. The set-up, degenerate aliens marooned in South Africa, is quite brilliant but the articulation of the narrative, with cliche-driven action, still fails to engage me, although the film was a worldwide hit.
My first visit to the Glasgow festival was a hit too. The brief intro given to most films was welcome and the closeness of the venues meant it was easy to get to the screenings on time even if the Cineworld cinema used was the top floor of a skyscraper.