Leave No Trace (US, 2018)

Leave_No_Trace

Off the grid in the words

A film without antagonists is a rarity for where will the drama come from? That’s a slight exaggeration as there are narrative problems for the protagonists to overcome but the causes of them are never embodied in characters. Debra Granik’s, she directed and co-scripted (with her filmmaking partner Anne Rossellini who also produced), fiction film follow up to Winter’s Bone is an other superb examination of an American underclass.

The underclass are people who mainstream society disdain and social institutions discriminate against. They are Othered so often blamed for their own predicament. Ben (Dad) and Tom (daughter), played by Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie, live like survivalists in an Oregon forest only entering the nearby Portland for supplies and for Ben to get his medication; he’s a veteran suffering from PTSD. Tom’s a 13-year-old and questions immediately arise as to why she is having to live off the grid; the ‘leave no trace’ of the title is to ensure they aren’t discovered. However, despite the fact they are on public land they are camping illegally and so are captured by the net of social services. They are given dehumanising ‘true-false’ questions on a computer to answer; the right wing love using technology to replace people as empathy is no longer possible (and supposedly saves money). The social workers, though, are shown to be caring and struggle to bring humanity to their work in the face of institutional indifference; the latter is implied, not shown. The antagonist, uncaring social institutions, is barely shown in the film; it is its turn to be unseen like the underclass. Only in a few of scenes is intrusive institutional power dramatised: when Ben and Tom are captured and a minor is taken off a greyhound bus, but even then it’s arguable that young people are being protected. The fact that Ben is a loving dad could not be a ‘given’ for the authorities. Only when a homeless veterans’ camp is destroyed is it absolutely clear that wrong is being done and even here the driver of the wrecking machine is faceless; after all, he would simply be doing his job.

I’ve laboured plot details somewhat to try and give a sense of how the film presents the world in a low key way. There is plenty of drama, though, particularly in the relationship between Ben and Tom which develops in an inevitable, and moving, fashion.

The acting is superb giving authenticity and emotional depth to the narrative. I was convinced that extras in a trailer park were ‘real people’ rather than actors, though the cast listing suggests otherwise. Granik can certainly get fabulous performances from her actors; American folk singer Michael Hurley plays guitar and sings. Most of all Granik challenges our ideas about these people who rarely figure on the radar of popular culture other than being backwoods villains in some Hollywood productions.

 

Rafiki (Kenya-South Africa-Germany-Netherlands-France-Norway-Lebanon-UK, 2018)

The love that dare not

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.

Behemoth (Bei xi mo shou, China-France, 2015)

Hell on earth

I don’t know what the symbolism of the man who we see carrying a big mirror on his back throughout the film is, but there’s no doubting the message of this incredible film. Co-writer-director-cinematography Zhao Liang has produced a modern version of Dante’s Inferno but the hell we visit is on earth. On the Mongolian steppes a gigantic open-caste mine blights the landscape and the lives of all those who work in it and live by it. As the narrator, presumably Zhao, tells us, the reference to Dante is explicit.

In the early 19th century the Romantics ‘discovered’ the natural landscape and found it ‘awesome’, in the sense that it filled them with fear. It wasn’t until urban areas became sufficiently large that the town-country opposition was created and so the countryside could be seen as a distinct entity. Behemoth, too, presents awesome landscapes but they are scary because the capitalist pursuit of profit creates absolute devastation. Pastoral images of Mongolian shepherds have the industrial mine as their backdrop, the behemoth of the title. Zhao’s images are themselves awesome in the modern sense of the word. The framing and positioning is quite extraordinary, especially when we realise that he was a ‘guerilla filmmaker’ when operating within the mine; there’s no way he would have gotten permission to film. Such is the ‘beauty’ of his cinematography that it’s comparable to the photographs of Sebastião Salgado‘s and Edward Burtynsky; the open cast mine also reminded me of Godfrey Reggio’s Powaqqatsi (US, 1988).

In keeping with the astonishing compositions, the narration is poetic; it tends to deal with what we’re seeing in an oblique way, as if it is impossible to comprehend the disaster in front of us. However, he is not simply dealing in abstracts as the film progresses to focus on the people who work in the hell. One scene starts with an entirely red screen and it seems that Zhao is using an expressionist device to portray the violence done to the landscape but then shadowy shapes appear and we realise the colour is from a blast furnace with workers in close proximity. Later we see some of the unfortunates who simply stare into the camera, their faces scarred by their work. They are silent witnesses to the human cost of the rampant exploitation of the environment. They are scarred inside too as many are suffering from pneumonociosis; we see protestors demanding restitution and men lying on their death beds.

The narrative is brilliantly structured, by Sylvie Blum and Zhao, as we end in what could be one of Burtynsky’s landscapes. A deserted city is seen with tumbleweed blowing across the road. Is everyone at work? Then a litter picker runs to capture the detritus of nature and then we are told it is a ‘ghost city’, one of many that were built in China but there was no one to live in them. You couldn’t make it up: the stupidity of capitalism, in the guise of property speculation here, that is destroying the planet and its people.

I tentatively look forward to seeing Zhao’s other documentaries.

The Last Tree (UK, 2019)

Challenging tropes

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.

Miles Ahead (US, 2015)

Cheadle ahead

Biopics that attempt to cover a whole life rarely work as life doesn’t readily crush into a two-hour narrative; an alternative is to focus on a particular time with flashbacks to key moments, which works much better. The ‘moment’ in Don Cheadle’s (it is his: he stars, co-wrote, directed, produced) film is the silence Davis ‘endured’ during the ’70s. I’ve been a Miles fan for years and was soon wrapped up in Cheadle’s fantastic performance and, after some irritating camerawork of the framing interview, at the start, directs well. Above all, it is the convincing realisation of the music that stands out; it wasn’t hard to think we were watching Miles, and many other jazz greats (in the flashbacks), at play. Plaudits also to Hannah Beachler’s production design and Roberto Schaefer’s cinematography.

Although authenticity is important, the film also deploys a fictional character as a foil. Ewen MacGrego, rchannelling Renton, plays a Scottish journalist who’s trying to blag an exclusive interview. MacGregor at one point tells Miles he couldn’t remember what happened because he ‘was offa ma tits’ (drunk): Cheadle-Mile’s incomprehension is brilliant. Cheadle also uses some extreme close-ups which, along with the soundtrack, give expressionist moments which serve to portray Miles’ state of mind rather than simply showing what was happening.

The film does not ignore Miles’ faults: his treatment of his wife, superbly played by Emayatzy Corinealdi, is shown to be riven by the sexism of the time. He tells her to give up her career so he can look after her. Why were (are) men threatened by strong women? His addictions are also shown for what they were.

In comparison, a recent film that uses the same narrative technique to portray a star, Judy, relies too heavily on the (superb) performance of Renee Zellwegger. The flashbacks here focus on The Wizard of Oz, but miss out on the 1940s, the years of Garland’s greatest stardom. The film’s thesis is her treatment, as a 17-year-old, by Louis B Mayer, blighted her life. While I’m sure that’s true, anyone unfamiliar with Garland wouldn’t get a sense of how big a star she was so the ‘fall’ in the ’60s is slightly less a tragedy. Miles Ahead both fleshes out the milieux of the time and Miles’ seminal musical moments sufficiently to understand how his ’70s hiatus was significant.

Music is key to the success of the film and you do get a sense of eavesdropping on the creation of great music: for example, Miles working with the Evanses, Bill and Gil. Most of all, it pushes you back to the Mile’s great albums.

The Cave (Syria-Denmark-Germany-Qatar-US, 2019) – LFF6

Seeing and believing

A documentary set in an underground hospital regularly peppered with bombs and rockets: what’s not to like? It wasn’t as gruelling an experience as I expected because of the amazing fortitude displayed by the staff, particularly paediatrician and hospital administrator Amani Ballour. She not only has to deal with the patients, and the logistics of an under-resourced hospital in inhospitable circumstances, but also the ingrained sexism of some of her patients! The film celebrates the good in people even when they are victims of what can only be characterised as evil.

The ‘rights and wrongs’ in the world are possibly more blurred than ever as misinformation infiltrates information. The fact that this is a National Geographic presentation raises a question mark with me as America has a particular agenda in the conflict. Director Feras Fayyad was Oscar nominated for Last Man in Aleppo (Denmark-Syria, 2017), which I haven’t seen, that focused on the work of White Helmets. These appear to be engaged in criminal activities (this apparently was not the subject of Fayyad’s film); elsewhere it is suggested that they are victims of Russian propaganda… So although The Cave appears to be absolute authentic we should (always) be sceptical.

The documentary is primarily observational with occasional voiceover from Ballour. However, Fayyad’s use of sound is more in keeping with a fiction film as it uses a design that emphasises the immense cacophony of a military attack; brilliantly done – Peter Albrechtsen supervised 16 sound technicians according to imdb . Matthew Herbert’s score, too, seeks to squeeze the emotion out of the spectator. These are both extremely effective but also leave question marks over the image, as if what we’re seeing isn’t enough to make us believe the terrible events. Similarly, the end credits state the film is based on Ballour’s diaries and so the observational rhetoric of the film is tempered by subjectivity; to what extent did Fayyad stage events recorded in Ballour’s diary? I’m not suggesting subterfuge (after all the source is credited) but The Cave is clearly not a straightforward presentation of Fayyad’s experiences.

Apparently 500 hours of footage was filmed, which took a year to edit. A chemical attack in Ghouma, that took place in 2013, serves as the climax. At least I think it was a chemical attack; again we must understand that misinformation is rife, for example the apparent chemical attack last year in Douma is highly contentious. I’m not saying the attack shown in the film didn’t happen; how can I know? All documentaries are representations of reality but what’s real in Syria is nebulous at best from the perspective of a cosseted westerner in a London cinema.

The observational stance the documentary takes means we learn nothing of the logistics of supplying food and medicines to the hospital. Though it is understandable why Fayyad rarely steps out of ‘the cave’, this means the film raises as many questions as it seems to answer. One telling line, from Ballour, is when she asks ‘is there a God?’ The same question had arisen in The Two Popes, that I’d seen a couple of hours earlier, with reference to the Argentinean military junta’s atrocities. The answer given by The Cave, as I read it, is ‘no’.

The Two Popes (UK-Italy-Argentina-US, 2019) – LFF5

Seeing doubles

I missed Fernando Meirelles’s last film as director, 360 (UK-Austria-France-Canada-Brazil-US, 2011), but his previous, BlindnessThe Constant Gardner (UK-Germany-US-China-Kenya, 2005) and City of God (with Kátia Lund, Brazil-France-Germany, 2002) were all interesting. As is the Netflix-headed The Two Popes which surprisingly engaged me given my interest in religion is tangential at best. If I struggled with the film at all it was because it humanised the Pope(s), which is not to say they aren’t human, but they tend not to represented as such. As God’s representative on Earth, the issues of representation are tricky. I dislike monolithic meta-narratives that purport to tell others how to live; earlier this week the DUP tried to keep Northern Ireland in the ‘dark ages’ regarding religion and same sex marriages to show bigotry still thrives in some institutions. Indeed, that is the focus of the film, scripted by experienced film writer Anthony McCarten, as it contrasts the last two Popes: ‘fundamentalist’ Benedict and his successor, the ‘humanist’ Francis.

The Popes are embodied by Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, who are both superb, and the narrative is ideal for those ignorant of anything other than broad brush Roman Catholic politics (me). It sets up the conservative versus progressive narrative and then undermines it with flashbacks to Francis in Buenos Aries under the military dictatorship of the 1970s. Humans’ characters are rarely ‘black or white’, which is why the almost-deification of the Pope is ridiculous, and the film admirably shows us the shades of character that are part of all us.

My ignorance is such that I’m not sure how much we see is imagined or based on what is generally known. It’s certainly not a docudrama about the last two Papal accessions so a liberal degree of artistic licence is to be expected. The (almost) obligatory footage of the actual Popes at the end of the film seems to suggest what we’ve seen is true but the film would have been better without this epilogue. Has Francis been a better Pope than Benedict? I have no idea.

I saw the film in 4k, which for The Aeronauts added greatly to the experience (the ice on the ropes was palpably freezing), but it added little to my enjoyment of The Two Popes; though there is a scene in the Sistine Chapel. Such a dialogue heavy film will be little diminished by Netflix I suspect though, of course, films should preferably be seen in the cinema.