The Swallows of Kabul (Les hirondelles de Kaboul, France-Luxembourg-Switzerland, 2018)

Patriarchy conflicted and repressive

I’m unfamiliar with the novel, written by Yasmina Khadra (a pseudonyn for a male army officer who was in the Algerian military when the book was published), but the animated rendition is a powerful indictment of repression against women. Strikingly, it also shows the damage done to men by the violent patriarchy enacted by the Taliban in Afghanistan at the turn of the century. While the film, unlike the book I understand, gives us little of the backstories of the protagonists (the feminist Zunaira who refuses to wear a burkha and so can’t go out was a magistrate for example) the effect is to give it a mythological quality. This is enhanced by the beautiful watercolour animation and, particularly, the fleeting appearance of the swallows of the title; they, unlike women in Kabul, can go where they like.

The narrative, realised by directors Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec, concerns two couples: Zunaira and her disillusioned husband (who to his horror finds himself taking part in a stoning of a prostitute), Atiq, and jailer, Mohsen, whose wife, Mussarat, is terminally ill. The couples’ paths cross, eventually, with the early part of the film outlining the quotidian existence of the oppressed in Kabul. The nihililsm of the fundamentalist strictures against music and dance are soul destroying examples of the joylessness of life under autocratic rule where the personal no longer matters unless you are a member of the elite (who are men and shown enjoying prostitutes). The Taliban were an invention of the CIA who were used (no doubt willingly) to fight back against the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan during the 1980s; the blowback from which has, of course, been spectacular.

I’m trying to imagine how the film would be different if it were ‘live action’. Maybe it’s my association with animation as being for children (which tends to be the case in the west) gives it connotations of ‘fairy tale’. This is striking as the Kabul of the film is hell on earth and so the disjuncture between the expectation of animation presenting a world that is, in the end, reassuring, and the reality of the setting works to show how evil the repression of the Taliban is. That said, I’ve no doubt the film would work equally well with actors. Apparently the film was first shot with their cast and the filmed scenes formed the basis of the animation.

Of course animation isn’t ‘just’ for children; Grave of the Fireflies,Takahata Isao’s devastating portrait of post-war Tokyo, springs to mind. As for another film that deals with the same issues as The Swallows of KabulOsama (Afghanistan-Ireland-Japan-Iran-Netherlands, 2003), written and directed by Saddiq Barmak, is even more devastating.

So Long, My Son (Dijiutianchang, China, 2019)

The personal and the political enmeshed

So Long, My Son is a flabbergasting film (partly due to its three hour plus running time) in that it manages to intricately combine the political with the personal. While melodrama is often used to tell a story of an era sometimes, as in the case of this film, as a family saga where we see how the changing times affect different generations, it rarely does so in such a convincing way. The context here is the highly politicised China at the end of the last century when, in the late ’70s, the ‘one child’ policy was introduced to help the transition to state capitalism. The long running time of the film isn’t a strain on attention, just on brain power to hold all the detail; not a moment is wasted.

I first encountered Wang Xiaoshuai, a ‘sixth generation’ (from the Beijing film school) director, with his Beijing Bycycle (Shiqi sui de dan che, France-Taiwan-China, 2001), a homage to Bicycle ThievesThis generation’s defining moment was the Tiananmen Square massacre (1989) and so it’s no surprise to find a critical edge to their films. The criticism was not just toward the Chinese government, western consumerism was also a likely target, especially as Deng Xiaoping’s reforms were aimed at introducing ‘luxuries’ such as refrigerators and colour televisions. So Long, My Son critiques the ‘one child’ policy through the couple, Yaojun and Liyun, played respectively by Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei (both award winners at last year’s Berlin Film Festival), as the film follows their lives from the mid-’80s to the present day. To avoid spoilers I won’t offer details of the narrative other than to say it is brilliantly structured (written by Wang and Ah Mei) so that the final 30 minutes is a brilliant summation of the preceding two and a half hours. That’s not so say it’s always easy to follow as, increasingly in modern ‘arty’ cinema I feel, it freely uses flashforwards and flashbacks without clearly indicating when we are. Dramatically I think this serves to show how our lives are a sum of our past: we can never escape our memories. In this sense the past is always with us.

Stylistically Wang is flexible, from a devastating use of a pan in extreme long shot, of a dramatic event early in the film, to striking ‘reverse shots’. The latter occurs with long takes followed by a shot of what is, in effect, behind the camera. In one scene the boss of a factory tells the workers there will be redundancies in the national interest, his long speech is followed by a shot of the audience, all wearing blue Mao suits. Their uniformity fills the screen and then they burst out in protest. Similarly, a scene at a tatty graveside is followed by a reverse shot of the immaculate graveyard. There is one brilliant, almost throwaway shot, of Yaojun looking out of a car window, when they return to their home town after years away, where he sees a statue of Mao. Behind him there’s building and the word ‘victory’ can be seen. Moments later, as the car moves, we can see it’s the name Victory Mall, so the building is shopping centre. Yaojun chuckles.

From a British (western?) perspective the use of tune from Auld Lang Syne in a Chinese version seems incongruous. I suspect the lyrics are the same, though, as the theme of old friendships runs throughout the film. The cinematography, by Kim Hyun Seok, is often beautiful and this is a film that needs to be seen more than once.

Queen & Slim (Canada-US, 2019)

Fateful meeting

African-American themed films tend not to play well at the UK box office and so it was good to see Cineworld taking a risk with what is essentially a throwback to the early ’70s New Hollywood movie; it’s certainly not straightforward multiplex fodder. Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) meet on a Tinder date and then find trouble with a racist cop. What follows is a road movie, hopefully to freedom, where they discover much about each other and something about racially divided America.

There’s so much in this film that impresses especially as most of the principals are feature film debutants: director Melina Matsoukas (known for music video, particularly Beyoncé’s Formation), scriptwriter Lena Waithe (based on an idea by James Frey) and Turner-Smith who turns in a (hopefully) star-making performance. Kaluuya executive produced, no doubt helping get the reported $17m budget, and matches his co-star with another superb turn.

Although the film is set in the present, Matsoukas has made the mise en scene timeless to an extent: the cars are old fashioned; a youngster takes a photograph using a camera; the brilliantly chosen music runs the gamut of the last fifty years. In addition, the script isn’t particularly concerned with realism as some of the plotting strains credulity a little (the encounter with the sheriff for instance) however as the film is operating more an a symbolic level, rather than trying to convince us we are seeing a window on the world, that isn’t a problem. Occasionally, we hear dialogue which the characters aren’t speaking, though it’s relevant to the scene; another anti-realist device.

Road movies are usually about ‘finding yourself’ and/or the place the characters live in. Five Easy Pieces (US, 1970) and The Sugarland Express (which shares the outlaw narrative) are two examples from New Hollywood cinema where, it seemed, the director truly called the shots; Bob Rafelson and Steven Spielberg respectively. Ironically it was the latter’s Jaws (1975) that led to the producer-led Hollywood that still predominates; he has continued to churn out personal movies, some of which are interesting. The ending of Queen & Slim, in particular, reminded me of films from that time. Although a precursor of New Hollywood, Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is an explicit reference point for the film.

Despite its sort-of timelessness, the film is obviously about #BlackLivesMatter and so is resolutely contemporary; it shares this theme with the also excellent The Hate U Give. Every review I’ve read has criticised the cutting between the sex scene (involving the protagonists) and a demonstration against police racism. For me it worked in contrasting the personal (these were two lonely people who were seeking love) and the political (the colour of their skin compromises their existence because America is a racist society): why should people have to protest to live their lives without police harassment?

The film’s done decent business in America and I hope it does so in the UK; if independent cinema starts channeling the aesthetics of early ’70s Hollywood we should live in interesting times.

Iconic image?

One aspect I wasn’t sure about was the image (above) that became representative, in the film, of injustice against POC; it’s obviously drawing on a negative stereotype of African-Americans as pimps and whores (the clothes were borrowed from Queen’s pimp uncle). Candice Frederick, in Film Comment, suggests, ‘Queen and Slim attempt to masquerade as the confident, badass celebrities their public expects them to be.’ That seems to be persuasive except it’s clear that when they put on their disguises they are in a hurry rather than choosing how to look. However, the film is too knowing not to be using this without intention. Presumably, because we know what the characters are actually like we can see beyond the representation and understand how reductive the stereotype is.

 

Samson and Delilah (Australia, 2009)

Desperate

Warwick Thornton’s second film as director, Sweet Country, blew me away so I had to catch up with this, his debut. In some ways it is less ambitious, which is to be expected in a low-budget, small crew venture but in others, particularly its lack of narrative drive, it is pushing the audience more. Sweet Country had stars; Samson and Delilah has nobodies: I don’t mean that negatively. Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson, who play the eponymous roles (Aboriginal youths) who have no future, were unknowns when they made the film. They are both superb as people who are, in effect, ‘nobodies’: they are stuck in a dead-end community, near Alice Springs; he’s addicted to sniffing petroleum and she has to look after her ailing grandma. The latter makes ‘Aboriginal art’ which is sold for $200 and, as Delilah finds later, is priced a hundred times more in a chic shop.

Samson is almost mute, a melodramatic way of dramatising his lack of power in Australian society. Even his brother, who plays guitar in a band on the porch for no audience, refuses to let him join in. The one time Samson gets hold of the instrument he plays a raucous ‘screaming guitar’ and smiles: violence ensues. It’s not so much a dead end as a hell.

Thornton shows us this dispassionately. He doesn’t go out of his way to get the audience to sympathise with the plight of the protagonists. There are a couple of shocking moments which are shown and then the narrative moves on emphasising that terrible things are quotidian for these people and we understand the resilience of the characters. I mention melodrama, and that’s the genre it would fit into most, however it doesn’t do so comfortably as its observational camera ensures understatement. Yet as the narrative focus is on the relationship of the eponymous characters and, to a lesser extent, their families, melodrama is present. As noted above, there are demands on the viewer (not a lot happens quickly) which also places it firmly in arthouse territory.

As in Sweet Country, Thornton is his own cinematographer (he also shot the hit The Sapphires, Australia, 2012), and he captures the stark beauty of the landscape. There is an Otherness (to my western eyes) to the Australian Bush, as there is to how Aborigines are represented; is that because their culture is so ‘alien’ to western ‘rationality’ or is it merely an example of the exotic for jaded palettes? It could be both, the under-representation of Aborigines is, of course, part of the issue but Warwick Thornton is doing his best to change that. He’s currently working on the second season of Mystery Road, a detective thriller set in the Outback; the first season was excellent.