Sand Storm (Sufat Chol, Israel-Germany-France, 2016)

Hushing patriarchy

There’s a problem for a westerner watching unrestrained patriarchy in action in other cultures; in the instance of this film, Bedouin. For the feminists amongst us it will stimulate ire at the ridiculous and repressive behaviour of men. The problem is that leads us to judge other cultures and whilst judging is fine the question whether the judgement is based on full evidence. It’s too easy to assume ‘west is best’, though as that falsity becomes clearer by the year, it is a barrier that gets easier to overcome.

That said, I do trust the writer-director of Sand Storm, Elite Zexer, as she obviously went to great lengths to ensure the authenticity of her portrayal of Bedouin society. She even made a short film on the ‘topic’ and showed it to Bedouins first. I also like the fact that this portrayal of Arab life was Israel’s official entry to the Oscars in 2017 by virtue of the fact that it won the best film at the Ophirs. The linked article is worth reading for a description of the ‘culture war’ the film stimulated at the award ceremony.

Sand Storm, aside from its milieux, is a fairly standard melodrama of a vital young woman being forced into a marriage. Layla (Lamis Amar, an Israeli because Zexer had trouble sourcing Bedouin actors) appears to be the ‘apple of her dad’s’ eye and it is a shock to her when he claims he has no choice but to follow tradition. Layla’s mother (Ruba Blal), also a victim of patriarchy as her husband is taking a second wife at the film’s start, is first shown to support the tradition as she takes her frustration out on Layla. It is one of the strengths of the film that the mother’s transition to resistance is gradual; there’s no epiphany that leads to a dramatic stand. Indeed the film is not only realist in its handheld camera and location shooting as it, in its conclusion, makes clear that though change has to come, it will not come quickly. Layla’s younger sister, Tasnim, watches events carefully and has enough about her for us to hope that she will not be trapped like her mother and elder sister. Hitham Omari, as the dad, brilliantly plays a weak man acting as if he is strong: like the women in the film, he’s trapped in his role.

The film did well at the Berlin Film Festival and at Sundance and is now available on Netflix in the UK.

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Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci, Czechoslovakia, 1964)

On the run

One of the few things you can be sure about in Jan Němec’s debut film, and contribution to the then nascent Czech new wave, is that the protagonists are on the run from the Nazis. Co-scripted by Němec and Arnošt Lustig, based on the latter’s novel, the film strips the source material almost bare. here’s very little dialogue and the film is littered with might be flashbacks but also might be dreams.

Němec was in his early 20s when he went to FAMU, the film school in Prague, and apparently hadn’t seen any western art cinema to that date. It’s clear from Diamonds of the Night that he left the school admiring Luis Buñuel, Robert Bresson and Alain Robbe-Grillet. There’s even close-ups of ants on a hand, an obvious nod to Buñuel’s Un chien andalou (France, 1929), but there’s nothing in Němec’s film that feels derivative. The Robbe-Grillet influence is particularly from Last Year in Marienbad (France, 1961) where the same events are seen over and over again but with differences. It’s this play of memories that Němec draws on but in his film it seems to be about events that have just happened, or are about to happen, or maybe never happen. This ambiguity situates the film firmly in surrealism, a favourite of Czech cinema, though the dreamlike narrative is rooted in genuine fear of capture. In a bravura opening shot, the boys run from a train taking them to a concentration camp. The long take rushes up the hillside with them; the camerawork throughout is superb. The prime cinematographer is Jaroslav Kucera, who was married to Věra Chytilová; Miroslav Ondříček is also credited. Both went on to make significant contributions to the Czech New Wave.

You could read the boys’ (or is it just one of them?) dreamlike state as being a result of exhaustion. In one scene they spit out bread even though they are starving because it makes their dry mouths bleed. In another a farmer’s wife may be assaulted, sexually or otherwise, as different possibilities are shown. The stark black and white cinematography, sometimes over-exposed, adds a gritty feel to the dreamlike imagery. In one scene, the boys’ seem to spend an age clambering up a scree slope; in another, one of them seems to be chatting up a girl. As to their fate, I can’t spoil it because I don’t know.

Němec apparently ended up making wedding videos in California during the 1970s after being forced from Czechoslovakia after the demise of the Prague Spring; I doubt he brought his artistic sensibility to them but it was no surprise that he couldn’t find work in Hollywood as a director. He was a consultant on The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). After the Velvet Revolution he returned to Europe and has continued to make films that, unfortunately, don’t seem to be available in the UK.

Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro felice, Italy-Switzerland-France-Germany, 2018)

Happy?

At its best the experience of film is magical. By this I don’t mean the fantastical special effects that have become so commonplace that they no longer thrill but rather the moments when the sum of a film’s parts suddenly become more as a whole. Writer-director Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro is an example of this. The title, in English, seems to be based on the simile ‘happy as Larry’: this works in the sense that nothing gets Lazzaro down; he’s played with engaging blankness by debutant Adriano Tardiolo. He is a ‘simple’ ‘innocent’ who only want to please. I guess the name’s more likely reference is Lazarus for reasons I won’t divulge for fear of ‘spoiling’.

The first part of the film seems to be set in early 20th century rural Italy where sharecroppers eke out a meagre existence and use Lazzaro for the jobs they don’t want to do. Although they are exploitative, they do so with affection. The marquise, however, exploits with contempt and ensures the villagers remain in her debt. About half way through there is an abrupt change of tone that requires great confidence from a filmmaker to bring off; Rohrwacher succeeds.

The film is shot on Super 16mm in 1:1.63 ratio with the corners rounded giving an old fashioned feel to the look. The warmth of the rural environment is followed by the cold urban world of the city and at one level retains a social realist aesthetic narrating the lives of those ‘down at heel’. In one shocking sequence, migrant workers are seen outbidding one another for work: the lowest bid wins. Rohrwacher’s film is about exploitation in the ‘old world’ of Italy and in the new globalised world.

Social realism can, rightly, be grim but Happy as Lazzaro is leavened with humour and the ensemble cast, including Alba Rohrwacher, the director’s sister, are excellent; special mention must go to Sergi López who reminded me of Bob Hoskins in his prime. That said it isn’t a realist film so you will have to go see it to understand this contradiction.

Lazzaro is in a way he is like Voltaire’s Candide but he is not disillusioned when he enters the ‘real world’. Rather he retains his faith in humanity which, as Rohrwacher shows, is difficult in the face of exploitation but crucial if we are to retain our humanity. I need to catch up on her other films.

Nae Pasaran (UK, 2018)

The people united

The right still excoriates the trade union movement, justifiably because it stands in the way of rampant exploitation of the workers. The propagandistic aspect of this vilification in the 21st century is obvious because the unions have been emasculated by Thatcherite legislation which, shamefully, the Blair government refused to undo. In the 1970s the unions did have power and it’s no coincidence that inequality in British society has been steadily rising since they were defeated. Nae Pasaran is a timely reminder of the importance of international solidarity, even more so now when the insular xenophobes are on the rise, with its story of Scottish workers refusing to repair Hawker Hunter fighter jet engines.

The year was 1973 and on September 11th General Pinochet launched a coup against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. The coup was American backed as corporations were worried about Allende’s policy of nationalisation. Nixon was the president and Henry Kissinger the Secretary of State (unbelievably he won a Nobel Peace Prize): enough said. I remember (as a youngster) thinking Kissinger was some kind of hero as he was repeatedly represented on television news as a peacemaker in the Middle East. That was a lie then propagated by mainstream media; ‘fake news’ isn’t new. The current American government is trying to engineer a coup, shamelessly supported by the EU in recognising the unelected opposition leader as the the man they want in power. One thing that distinguishes the Trump administration from that of Nixon’s is that, amongst all the lies, the truth sometimes appears. National Security Advisor John Bolton admits the attempted coup is about oil; something Bush jr. didn’t say about Iraq.

Hence Nae Pasaran is particularly timely as it reminds us of America’s disastrous interventions in Latin America; Pinochet tortured political prisoners and thousands were killed. It also shows us how powerful international solidarity can be as the consequences of the workers ‘blacking’ the engines included the release into exile some of the political prisoners. These exiles included writer-director Felipe Bustos Sierra’s dad and he tracked down the surviving members of the trade unionists who were instrumental in ‘blacking’ the engines. After the documentary’s title sequence, that fills in the history of Chile 1973, we arrive in Scotland and meet these ageing heroes. If this sequence is a little long, they tell Sierra what they remember of the time, there’s a pay-off at the end when their achievement receives official acknowledgement. The middle parts of the documentary consist of tracking down the fate of the engines and the impact the Scottish boycott had.

I just managed to catch the film on BBC’s iPlayer service (it disappeared yesterday) as it was only broadcast in Scotland; a rather parochial decision as it would have been a public service to ensure the film was broadcast to the nation.

Everybody Knows (Todos lo saben, Spain-France-Italy, 2018)

Not knowing

Asghar Farhadi is one of the few arthouse auteurs whose films are almost guaranteed to be distributed in the UK; possibly because he’s won two ‘best foreigner’ Oscars. Everybody Knows showcases his command of film language, his ability to bend genre and boasts a great cast including Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz and Ricardo Darín.

It also revisits About Elly (Darbareye Elly, Iran-France, 2009) that used the thriller genre trope of a missing person to unravel familial and societal mores of middle class Iranian society. Some reviewers have suggested that Everybody Knows isn’t quite as successful because Farhadi (he wrote and directed) is in a foreign landscape. I don’t know Spain well enough to comment though little of the milieux didn’t ring true and I got a clear sense of the traditional importance of ‘land’ to the locals. What didn’t quite convince me was the use of genre: readers of the blog will know I love melodrama but when a particularly ‘soapy’ narrative development occurs in the film I didn’t feel it worked. It was too generic because, whereas in About Elly we always knew we were in an ‘arthouse’ film, the development centralises melodrama as the defining discourse. That’s not to say the film isn’t gripping and interesting and that’s not simply because Cruz, Bardem and Darín are in the cast. In fact the whole ensemble, the narrative is built around a family wedding, are superb. The early scenes convey with vigour the excitement of a family get together as the camera and editing are almost a whirlwind as the numerous characters are introduced. It is bravura filmmaking.

Another reservation was the conclusion that felt rather abrupt. Sure, Farhadi makes clear the repercussions of the events of the film will continue after the last reel but the psychological trauma of ‘missing’ isn’t addressed. This could be Farhadi using genre to set up an expectation and then not delivering upon it. However, I don’t think my dissatisfaction was caused by its ‘failure’ as a genre film, but the ending didn’t ‘ring’ psychologically true.

I don’t want to end on a negative note because I thoroughly enjoyed the film. Apparently it has been in gestation for some time but Farhadi was waiting for Cruz and Bardem to be available. It was worth the wait and the film is worth seeing if only for the charismatic ease with which these two stars operate. Add Ricardo Darín, the great Argentinean actor who carries the weight of a less flashy role superbly, and you have an unmissable film.

Capernaum (Capharnaüm , Lebanon-France-USA, 2018)

A cure for dry eye

Nadine Labaki’s (she directed and co-wrote) astonishing film was ‘inspired‘ by the number of children, many Syrian refugees, on the streets of Beirut. Using a contrived, though nonetheless effective, device of Zain (above right) suing his parents for having brought him into the world, the film unfolds in flashback explaining what had come to pass. Such social realism, the film very much exists in the grime of poverty-stricken lives, is not new, however the brilliance of this film is rare. Much of the film’s power comes from Zain (played by Zain Al Rafeea), a vagabond who finds himself looking after Yonas after the latter’s mother is arrested as an illegal. Not only do we see his indefatigable character do everything in his little power to look after the little one, but it’s done in an entirely convincing way. Like most of the actors in the film, Zain is a kid off the street, which no doubt feeds the immediacy of the drama.

This authenticity is down to Labaki’s brilliance (she also directed the superb Where Do We Go Now?) as she coaxes fantastic performances from amateurs and captures the drama with her camera. There are numerous shots on the street that are slightly high angle on the children serving to minimise the background. I noticed a few times feet walking into the frame and suddenly stop short as if they’d just noticed the camera. This suggests much of the shooting was not only done on location but without shutting down the street; incredibly difficult conditions in which to work no doubt. The result shows on the screen as the chaos (which is what capernaum means) is ingrained on the screen; actually ‘Hell’ might be a better title but that’s from a coddled western perspective.

It takes a lot for me to ‘tear up’ and blubbing is just about unknown but I only just managed to choke down the latter (to do so is a reflex). Of course that’s what melodrama is intended to do, though only the framing narrative device noted above is particularly melodramatic. Occasionally Labaki goes beyond social realism and the film takes wing; for example when well-meaning Christians go to raise the spirits of prisoners. The extended montage shows both prisoners joining in and those for whom nothing can alleviate their misery. It is a stunning sequence.

No doubt that this will be one of the best films I see this year and although I probably just favour Roma, I wished Labaki’s film had been acknowledged at the Oscars because this type of filmmaking needs more support than Cuarón. Everybody needs to know what’s happening in the world to be able to break out of their insularity and unfortunately Capernaum is very much about the world and now.

 

Denial (UK-US, 2016)

Heroes

As we appear to be in a post-truth society when any old bollocks, amplified by social media and social disengagement, is believed this case from the 1990s deserves airing. Holocaust-denier, David Irving (Timothy Spall), sued historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) because she called out his lies. Despite being American she was obliged to defend herself in British courts, which lean heavily toward the accuser. The film painstakingly delineates the complexities of the case and David Hare’s script superbly shows the legal issues that made the case difficult for the truth.

Her legal team, no doubt crammed with Public School-Eton educated folk, were clearly brilliant at their job. It just goes to show that idiots like Boris Johnson aren’t entirely typical. Unsurprisingly Lipstadt wants to take the stand to defend herself; she also wants Holocaust survivors to testify. However as Tom Wilkinson’s Richard Rampton (Lipstadt’s lawyer) says, this would just play into Irving’s hands as survivors’ memories are notoriously unreliable.

Millions of pounds were spent on the case which, from Irving’s accusation to the verdict, lasted years: all to reaffirm the truth. That it was necessary shows what a mess we’re in; now, for example, anti-vaxxers are succeeding in getting parents to risk their children. The lies, or course, are usually political in nature: the less people understand the world the more likely they are to support ‘populists’ who appeal to emotion rather than intellect and shit on ‘the people’. We know how well that turned out in the 20th century and it’s important that social media is also used to ‘call out’ the lies of those who would mire us in ignorance for their own purposes. Yesterday Tory MP Iain Duncan Smith told Bloomburg opinion polls showed most people in the UK where happy to leave the EU with a ‘no deal’. Either he’s a liar or stupid (probably both) and his coughing as he spoke suggested he was choking on something.The ‘bullshit asymmetry principle; states: ‘the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it’; it is amply illustrated by Denial.

There’s a chilling moment at the summing up of the cases when the judge asked Rampton, who was busy proving that Irving was lying, ‘what if Irving believes what he’s written?’ Rampton looks rattled but recovers to explain the self-serving nature of Irving’s deception. There’s little doubt that Trump believes whatever comes out of his mouth as he seeks to mould the world to his will and it is the news media’s duty to challenge this however it fails on a daily basis. One of the reason why we’re still floundering to deal with climate change, for example, is because the ‘other side’, usually sponsored by fossil fuels, is given a platform. The BBC even gave Tommy Robinson a platform (even using his own meme of his gagged face!) and so helped normalise right wing extremism. The truth can be like, as EH Carr put it, a historical fact which is a sack with no shape until you put something (perspective) into it. However, there are no ‘alternative facts’ regarding the existence of the Holocaust that require investigating.