This film was screened at the Hyde Park Picture House and followed by a Q&A with the writer and director, Rob Brown. Unfortunately there was a relatively small audience for what was [I believe] a rare screening. We started a little late as there were problems getting the HD version to screen correctly. My friend Cheryl asked wishfully if the team had not ‘bought their cans with then’. (i.e. 35mm) The film runs for eighty minutes and is in colour and the New Academy ratio.
The events in the film run over a period of three days. The central character is Jumah (Roger Jean Nsengiyumva). Just coming up to his sixteenth birthday, Jumah lives with his adoptive mother Laura (Rachel Stirling) in West London on a housing estate. He goes to a local comprehensive school and has a girlfriend there, Chloe (Rosie Day). What marks out Jumah is that he comes from the Congo, and his earlier years have left him marked physically and psychologically by the ravages of the continuing neo-colonial wars there. He has a problem with what is nowadays called ‘anger management’. Other important characters are his friend Alex (Deon Williams) and a school colleague Josh (Fady Elsayed) who is involved with a local drug dealer, Liam (Sam Spruel).
It is the violence associated with this criminality that creates the problems of the story. The film works well: it looks good, and the cast offer a convincing portrayal of the milieu and the characters. The audience was overwhelmingly positive when we came to talk about the film. A number were affected by the film’s sense of realism: i.e. by presenting recognisable characters and situations whilst managing to create a dramatic story. Wendy Cook from the Hyde Park introduced Rob Brown and asked him to talk about the making of the film. Impressively the overall budget was only sixty thousand pounds, though the film looks far more expensive. It also had a long gestation period, though the actual shoot took only 18 days. The length of the process can be seen in the production date being in 2013, when it featured at the London Film Festival.
It is Rob’s first feature though he has already directed six short films, some of which have featured in the Leeds International Film Festival. Rob talked about how he developed his idea into the film. He said he starts with a character and then he adds the issues and events that occur in the film’s plot. One item that fed into his imaginings was a photograph from Rwanda (alongside and involved in the conflicts in the Congo). He also said that he deliberately made aspects of the film sketchy, for example, the characters are not provided with clear ‘back stories’. He wanted audiences to respond and interpret the characters and events as the story developed. For the same reason he avoided flashbacks. Members of the audience ask questions and commented on this. There was praise for the way the film develops the central character and the conflicts that he faces. One issue that came up was the ending, which is relatively positive. Rob referred to an earlier independent UK film with a black protagonists, Bullet Boy, which has a very downbeat ending. He said he wanted to offer something that was more refreshing. One of my reservations about the film was the ending. Not the decisions and actions of the characters but the way it was plotted. I found this far more conventional than most of the film. Rob remarked that one of the films that impressed him was Boyhood (2014), and I had a similar feeling regarding the ending of that film, which in other ways was extremely impressive. I felt the scripting for Sixteen was very strong on character and developments – the penultimate sequence is very effective. I was not so happy with the dialogue, which I found somewhat conventional: some scenes lacked conviction. In his comments Rob stressed that even working with another writer he wanted to make the work ‘mine’. This is the emphasis on a personal vision so fondly held in auteur commentaries. I tend to think that many fine films work well with an interaction of visions; certainly like many other recent films I thought the writing could be developed. One intriguing aspect of the main character is his interest in hairdressing, clearly unconventional for a boy. I failed to ask Rob about this. But it occurred to me later that this is a motif that develops interesting aspects on the characters in the film. One scene that particularly struck me was set at evening as Jumah cuts Chloe’s hair. The film also had two stylistic tropes which I felt were unhelpful. One was the frequent use of hand-held camera. This is rapidly becoming de rigueur for ‘realists’ films, but I was not convinced that it served a function here. The other trope was more intrusive, the use of noticeable music/sound accompaniment at particular moments of intensity. I felt this distracted from the generally naturalistic feel of the film. Though a friend said she did not particularly notice this. Even with those reservations this is a strong and effective drama. It is one that addresses serious issues and offers these through really interesting characters. I am not sure how easy it will be to catch the film at a cinema. Rob and his team are ‘self-distributing’ the film. Jake Hume, Nic Jeune – producers. Music by John Bowen. Cinematography by Justin Brown: Arri Ariflex. Film Editing by Barry Moen. Production Design by Jonathan Brann. BBFC Certificate 15.
This was Kristen Stewart’s other ‘indie’ in 2010 and something different to Welcome to the Rileys. ‘The Runaways’ were an ‘all girl’ teen rock band in Los Angeles in the 1970s founded in 1975 by Joan Jett (the Stewart role in the film) and drummer Sandy West but packaged by manager Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) and fronted by 15 year-old singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning). The film is not a music biopic of the band but rather a ‘coming of age’ story focusing primarily on the Cherie Currie character (whose 1989 book Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway was published in a revised form in 2010 and provided the basis for the film’s narrative). This perhaps explains why, despite sharing top billing and playing the more substantial music performer, Kristen Stewart is in effect a supporting player in Dakota Fanning’s film. (Since my main focus here is Kristen Stewart’s performance, I won’t be spending time on Dakota Fanning’s input to the film – but this shouldn’t be read as any kind of criticism of Fanning’s contribution.)
I remember Joan Jett from the later 1970s but most of the story was new to me so I would have liked to know more about the history of the band. Writer-director Floria Sigismondi, best known for music videos, had an estimated $10 million from independent producers and she sketches in the background to Joan Jett’s initial introduction and Cherie Currie’s home life but we learn little about the other three band members or about how most of the songs (mostly written by Jett, Fowley and Currie) were developed. So the band goes from performing in clubs in the American South-West to an international tour in Japan seemingly in a single step. (The Runaways didn’t have much chart success in the US but they did make an impact in Europe and East Asia, especially Japan.)
The focus is on the relationship between Joan Jett and Cherie Currie with the latter’s life producing the more dramatic episodes. Viewed on this level, the film does offer an interesting story about teenage girls and how they both challenged the male music industry and attempted to avoid being consumed by it (Joan Jett being more successful on both accounts from what I’ve read/seen). Sigismondi shot on Super 16 and certainly managed to capture the vitality of the band and to represent the milieu of the Los Angeles punk scene.
My main interest here is the casting of Kristen Stewart and how she performed in the role. Although the films are very different, Stewart’s role does have some similarities with the ‘runaway’ character in Welcome to the Rileys. Here is another potentially angry teen with a dark, gothic or emo look, but this time she is very focused and she knows what she wants. Also, Joan Jett is a real person and she was an executive producer on the film. Stewart must have felt the pressure to ‘become’ Joan Jett. This is one of the options for an actor, especially in music biopics where ‘performance’ is highlighted. Stewart in effect disappears behind the hair, make-up and costumes in becoming Joan Jett. She uses her own voice in some of the music performances (the original songs also appear on the soundtrack) and plays the guitar (although it is Joan Jett’s playing that is heard on the soundtrack.
We also learn from the DVD’s ‘making of’ feature that one of the reasons why Kristen Stewart was cast was because she had worked with producer John Linson on Into the Wild in 2007. Linson tells us that he knew Stewart was a good actor and that she could be Joan Jett. This statement is important since Kristin Stewart was already by 2010 earning considerable amounts of money because of her fame achieved with the success of the first two Twilight films. There doesn’t seem to have been any push to ‘cash in’ on her celebrity in either this film or Welcome to the Rileys. Neither film appealed to Twilight‘s main audience. Even though The Runaways is about teen girl ‘rebellion’ most of those who saw the film on its (curtailed) cinema release were over 25. It is, after all, a historical film depicting events more than 30 years earlier. The younger audience probably found the film on DVD. But where Welcome to the Rileys put Stewart alongside James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo in an ‘adult drama’, The Runaways was perhaps more of a project she simply wanted to try because it sounded interesting and she was able to do something different in playing a living person (who was frequently on set – which must have been unnerving).
The film requires Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning to be on screen together for much of the time with Stewart often (but not always) playing the more composed and stable character and Fanning pushing her character to breaking point. In some ways, Dakota Fanning has had a similar career to Kristen Stewart and in two of the Twilight films she has been a secondary player in Stewart’s franchise. How important was this familiarity between the two young women an important factor in the casting of the film and their eventual performances? The trailer below clearly indicates that it is Fanning who is being promoted as the main attraction in The Runaways – yet the film requires Stewart as Joan Jett to both set up the possibility of the narrative (i.e. to create the band) and to hold it together and I think she succeeds in that task.
This intriguing film would make an interesting double bill with María y el Araña. I actually saw it before the Argentinian film and at first I thought it was ‘modest’, ‘slight’ even. On reflection it is more interesting than that suggests and it may be that thinking about María in the barrio in Buenos Aires has prompted me to rethink life for a middle-class teen in Quito.
The ‘holiday’ of the title is taken by Juan Pablo, a quiet and seemingly withdrawn 16 year-old from the European middle class, who is deposited by his mother with his uncle’s family in their hacienda in the Andes. The timing is important. This is just before a financial crisis in Ecuador in 1999 and ‘Juampi’ (a family nickname) discovers that his uncle is in serious trouble as President of a bank that has shut its doors and refused to pay out to deposit-holders. Juampi is mocked by his boorish male cousins but finds some sympathy with his female cousin and her girlfriend. Circumstances lead him to help the escape of a Quechuan (Amerindian) youth being threatened by Juampi’s uncle’s men. Through his developing friendship with this young man (also called Juan Pablo) we discover that Juampi is gay, although he only reveals this directly to his sketchbook. The narrative sees Juampi learn more about the lives of people he hasn’t met before and to visit a ‘black metal’ music event before it is broken up by security forces. In his mother’s apartment block, Juampi takes his friend up onto the roof to see the cityscape from a new perspective.
Shot in 2.35:1 Feriado is mainly an intimate drama although one scene by a beautiful waterfall and the scenes of the city at night do make good use of the widescreen. Juan Arregui plays Juampi as very quiet in the opening scenes, but perhaps he just seems so because his cousins are so brash. As he comes out of his shell he gradually becomes more assertive. In taking on sexuality, race and class as dimensions of a traditional ‘coming of age’ youth picture, director Diego Araujo might seem to be overloading his feature, but the ‘modest’ style of the film works and it does enough in 82 minutes to be successful – and the first Ecuadorean film to be officially selected for Berlin in 2014. It’s also impressive as a first feature for the director (see the official website).
I couldn’t find any festival coverage of this film (which was screened at several important festivals) – which surprised me as this was perhaps the most affecting of the films over the ¡Viva! weekend. It’s a youth picture and coming of age story crossed with a family melodrama and presented almost as social realism but with fabulous music and an element of ‘performance’ built into the narrative.
The second screening of the film was preceded by a very useful presentation on ‘The Latin American City in Cinema’ by James Scorer of Manchester University. He explained that the barrio (shanty town) where the central character lives is close to Puerto Madero, one of the newly renovated and now upmarket districts of Buenos Aires. An intelligent young woman, María is soon to finish elementary school and will be offered a scholarship to a high school – a potential way out of the barrio. She lives with her grandmother in a small shack which is shared with Garrido, the grandmother’s younger ‘companion’. María gives out junk mail on the subway system, often meeting an older friend who sells biscuits. One day she meets ‘Araña’, an older teenage boy who wears a Spider-Man hoodie and performs juggling and other tricks on the subway trains.
María is played by a non-professional, Florencia Salas, who has a smile to break hearts. Araña (Diego Vejezzi) is a similarly attractive and engaging young character. All seems set for a sweet teen romance, but as the Buenos Aires Herald puts it: ” . . . as the film unfolds, another story comes to the foreground, a story of subjugation and hidden pain”. The narrative develops in ways that are perhaps predictable but the presentation of the story is successful in representing a range of emotions – including a surprising and in some ways quite optimistic ending which is nevertheless underpinned by the knowledge that the lives of the young people in the barrio are still constrained by the failures of adults, both in the barrios and in the wider civil society of the city, to protect and nurture young people.
I was impressed by the subtle ways in which some aspects of the narrative are developed. Maria’s teacher knows something is wrong and expresses it with the slightest of looks askance. There are also some very strong visuals as befits a melodrama. The skill is in bringing these different elements together smoothly. I enjoyed the music in the film very much. It is mostly diegetic performed by bands in the shanty town and buskers on the subway. The music and the cinematography heighten the emotional pull of the film by contrasting the vibrancy of the performances with the restrictions of life in the barrio.
Director María Victoria Menis has made other films that have got some recognition outside Argentina, mainly in France (this is a French co-production) and I think that María y el Araña deserves to be seen more widely as well. The long trailer here which includes some extended scenes gives a good idea of how the film works. Most of what I discovered about the film came from the film’s Facebook page and the Argentinian production company’s ‘official website’.
Long trailer (minimal dialogue, no subtitles):