The Day After I’m Gone (Israel-France, 2019)

So near yet…

This is writer-director Nimrod Eldar’s feature debut and an accomplished one it is. The opening is a beautiful shot of a fairground ride slowly revolving and it lasts so long it’s clear it has some symbolic value. It’s a daring start, not seeking to engage audiences immediately into the narrative and the film itself takes a distanced view of the dysfunctional daughter-father relationship of Roni and Yoram. It’s the subject of melodrama however Eldar dials back to emotions to reflect the numbness felt by the protagonists who are superbly played by Zohar Meidan and Menashe Noy.

Yoram works as a vet in a safari park (he’s better with animals than with people?) though the scenes there reveal little of his character and one encounter with ‘stupid visitors’ seems pointless. Similarly, we only see Roni when she’s with her Dad and though it’s clear that the characters are withdrawn because of the loss of a mother/wife there’s no sense Yoram was any better at connecting before their tragedy. There’s one intensely dramatic scene which is shown ‘from a distance’, from the father’s perspective, but is nevertheless effective. However, the film would have benefited if both characters’ ‘back stories’ had been given a little more detail.

Even though we see his failings as a dad, at least Yoram tries to do something to resolve the crisis and they visit their extended family headed by a racist patriarch. This allows Eldar to, tangentially at least acknowledge, the constant crisis Israeli lives are overshadowed by: their subjugation of Palestinians. However, as the film is about family and not politics it’s understandable that the issue is not dealt with in detail. There’s also a scene were youngsters ‘perform’ the song ‘I love Israel’ and the expressions of the protagonists tell us all we need to know what they think about the sympathies of this right wing family. Even though Yoram may have had good intentions he can’t get through his male stupidity and it seems he feels the victim rather than his 17-year-old daughter.

Eldar’s direction is subtle, for example there are long takes of the protagonists in a car which require the leads’ strong performances as they wordlessly wrestle with their difficulties. Sound is important too, simple things like a cheering football crowd in the distance are given resonance, and the tricky, because potentially sentimental, ending is handled very well.

If some areas are under-developed there’s more than enough to thoroughly engage us in the private grief of two alienated individuals.

Da 5 Bloods (US, 2020)

Taking the knee

Spike Lee  is one of the most interesting film directors working today not only because he brings an African American perspective to the world but also he doesn’t let convention stifle his message; he’s always been a Brechtian filmmaker. BlacKkKlansman even saw Lee getting Oscar recognition (not that I believe it is an arbiter of what’s good just a signifier of what’s acceptable in the mainstream) and there’s a great line in Da 5 Bloods about the Klansman in the Oval Office. Lee doesn’t pull punches and even if he sometimes goes ‘over the top’ it’s always in a good cause. But what to say about this film which feature four vets returning to Vietnam apparently to bury a lost comrade?

By the end I hated it; it was like watching Tarantino’s Django Unchained where the brilliant representation of racism is curdled by the stupidity of the final scenes. It’s not just Da 5 Bloods ends badly but it’s totally misconceived; Kermode hits the mark:

‘What is less certain is the rather more awkward Three Kings-style adventure into which Da 5 Bloods mutates, as our antiheroes get chased, shot at and blown up in the jungles of modern-day Vietnam, selling their souls for gold like the fortune hunters in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.’

That said, he quite liked the film but the mis-steps, for me, overwhelmed all that’s good. It’s not as if mixing Sierra Madre into the politics of the Vietnam War couldn’t have worked but it is ineptly done. It’s a failure at the level of the script which was written by Lee and Kevin Willmott based on an original script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo; I surmise that whatever the merits of the original it doesn’t work with what Lee and Willmott introduced. Too much of what we see is risible: the land mines; Paul’s (Delroy Lindo) madness; Otis’ (Clark Peters) discovery. It’s not as if any of the narrative threads are impossible just they are not integrated comfortably into the whole.

There is much to like in the 155 minute running time: Newton Thomas Sigel’s brilliant cinematography that captures the beauty of Vietnam and, in the flashback scenes, uses 16mm to give the feel of documentary footage from the time. Lee throws in numerous references to Apocalypse Now!, the helicopters in the sun and The Ride of the Valkyries in particular, and uses footage from Civil Rights police violence and numerous black voices including Mohammed Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. All these work brilliantly but I was so alienated by the film from the time they find the gold that I had to force myself to keep watching.

Redoutable (Le Redoutable, France-Myanmar, 2017)

A wife’s revenge or Godard unmasked?

I’ve found it increasingly difficult to watch Jean-Luc Godard’s recent films but am not sure whether that’s a comment upon me or Godard. Others seems to like them but maybe the fans haven’t moved on; from what I can tell Godard hasn’t moved much in recent years but it must be incredibly difficult to recapture what was seen as youthful brilliance during his heyday of the French ‘new wave’. Director Michel Hazanavicius’ script is based on Anne Wiazemsky’s memoir Un an après, which was about her marriage to Godard in the late ’60s (though they didn’t divorce until 1979 they had been separated for nine years) and so the film shouldn’t be taken as a straight rendition of what happened; however, I was fairly convinced.

In the film Godard himself (played brilliantly by Louis Garrel) says he’s finished at 37 years old and there is a sense that he was out of his time. His brilliant debut À bout de souffle was made in his 30th year, not quite in the ‘hot fire’ of youth, and when May ’68 erupted he was nearly 40. The film portrays him as trying to keep up with the youthful rebellion but not belonging despite the reverence with which he is held by the youngsters. Incidentally the May ’68 demos are brilliantly staged in the film.

Godard’s films steadily moved away from commercial cinema, not that he started in its midst anyway, and by the start of Redoutable he’d just made La Chinoise (1967) which didn’t hit the zeitgeist though the follow-up, Week End (France-Italy, 1967) did; the latter doesn’t get a mention as the film covers only a few weeks in May including the abandoned Cannes film festival. He’s seen meeting Jean-Pierre Gorin with whom he formed the Dziga Vertov group; they went on to make the excellent Tout va bien (1972, France-Italy) with Jane Fonda and Yves Montand. One film of Godard’s from the era I’d like to see again is Le gai savoir (France-Germany, 1969) which I remembered enjoying in the halcyon days of the UK’s Channel 4, in the 1980s, when they screened truly alternative texts.

Hazanavicius uses a Woody Allen gag when a fan asks Godard when he’s going to make funny films again (as against the serious political stuff) and though Godard didn’t make straight comedies (or straight anything) there was a lightness of touch to many of his earlier films and Redoutable takes its cue from that. One scene, in particular, is hilarious when Godard and his confederates had managed to get Cannes cancelled the General Strike means there’s no transport back to Paris other than a packed car in which he can’t help but be his argumentative self; its superbly staged and performed.

There are more gags in the Godardian touches such as the use of intertitles and the self-reflexive scene were Godard and Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin) discuss having actors perform nude gratuitously in film: of course, they are naked. In fact Martin is often naked in the film though it’s a stretch to suggest that Hazanavicius is satirising the misogynist tone of many of Godard’s films. The portrayal of Godard does show him to be an entitled male even though he is one who understands his entitlement he can’t resist using it. At the end of Agnès Varda’s documentary Faces Places a planned reunion with Godard fails to happen because he isn’t home showing him to be mean spirited.

I particularly liked Christian Marti’s set design that emphasises red, white and blue, colours that often featured in the director’s films. I think those who know Godard will enjoy the film more than those who don’t but there’s enough for the non-aficionado too. Any Godard fans want to have a go at the question, ‘Redoutable is the best film featuring the name Jean-Luc Godard for many, many years’. Discuss?

 

An Elephant Sitting Still (Da xiang xi di er zuo, China, 2018)

No light at the end

With a running time of nearly four hours (full disclosure: I did it in two sessions), Bo Hu’s directorial feature debut, and his last film, is a gruelling, grim near masterpiece. Bo committed suicide, aged 29, before the film was released and as scriptwriter and editor, it’s clearly his vision which if it isn’t quite nihilist certainly borders on it. It’s unlikely that the awards the film garnered would have encouraged Bo to prolong his stay but his talent has been wasted.

Its realist camerawork, constantly (except for the final shot) handheld with natural lighting only (taking a Dogme95 edict to the letter), portrays a day in the life of four characters all of whom are having a bad time. The lighting means there is, fittingly, little of beauty in the film; though the above still is an exception. In addition, it’s not always easy to see what’s happening and the almost-guerilla style filmmaking on the street often necessitates a low angle, medium shot behind a walking character to avoid seeing the immediate environment in detail; even then one bystander can be seen waving at the camera. So aesthetically there is some frustration, however the impact of the narrative and superb performances (Wang Yuwen, Peng Yuchang, Zhang Yu and Wang Jin) make this a film worth suffering through.

The setting is an unnamed city in North East China and, hopefully, Bo chose the shittiest areas to shoot because it looks like hell on earth and its inhabitants deserve to live there. Of course, the latter isn’t true as living conditions, both actual and social, have a massive influence on personality. It reminded me Jia Zhang-ke’s Xiao Wuwhich was banned in China on release as it gave such a negative representation of the country; An Elephant Sitting Still tops it by some degree! From a western perspective, at least, much of what we see is shocking: a boy is injured at school but the Vice Principal refuses to call the police as he says the family will take their own retribution. Nobody, and that’s nobody, is nice to anybody else, with one exception of a loyal friend and that doesn’t end well; the housing is dreadful; I could go on. The cross cutting narratives resemble a soap opera as does the family conflict that intensifies any TV drama grief ten-fold.

Taking the film as a distinct representation of a desperate worldview, it is a superb rendition of hopelessness. Hence the title, the story of the elephant in a nearby zoo, who sits and won’t move, appears throughout the film. The elephant, it seems, has given up; the film’s characters don’t but it seems they might as well do so.

Kuessipan (Canada, 2019) – CIFF6

Friends for life?

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 Fotaine 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.

Rounds (V krŭg, Bulgaria-Serbia, 2019) – CIFF5

A night in the life of

Director and co-writer (with Simeon Ventsislavov) Stephan Komandarev’s last film, Directions (Posoki, Bulgaria-Germany-Republic of North Macedonia, 2017), centred on taxi drivers in Sofia. In Rounds it’s the turn of cops and he hopes to complete the trilogy with ambulance workers. ‘Hopes’ reflects the difficulties he had in getting the small budget for Rounds and the film was shot, incredibly, in 12 days. It won the Cineuropa Award at the Sarajevo Film Festival and the Best Actress jury prize for Irini Jambonas who plays the only female cop. Rounds is a brilliant mix of mordant humour and social commentary. It’s set the night before the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and some of the conversation is about the debate whether the Red Army statue should be removed or not.

Clearly Bulgaria is a divided country between those who celebrate western ‘freedom’ and those who pine for the days of Soviet ‘tyranny’. As one character says (I paraphrase), “I used to live on Class Struggle Street and they renamed it European Way; it hasn’t changed”.

The narrative follows three pairs of cops who are linked only by moving a corpse over a precinct boundary so they won’t have to deal with it. Komandarev said in an interview they used stories from actual cops and the absurdity of encountering grave vandals who claim their names are Rocky, Rambo and Sylvester give a sense of the surreal nature of some of their work. The darker side of dealing with those on the margins is seen when searching for an AWOL Alzheimer’s patient who turns out to be an ex-teacher that had ‘saved’ the cop from a life of crime. The glimpse we get into the ‘care’ home is quite chilling and the cop faces the moral dilemma of what to do in such circumstances. Another thread includes a young lad beaten up by neo Nazis.

Understandably the takes are long and the camera is often positioned in the back of the car giving it a documentary feel that is entirely appropriate. The performances are all believable and it is some feat of filmmaking to produce such a superbly made film under such limitations. This ‘night in the life of…’ gives us the good and bad and an insight into what post-‘Communism’ is like in a former eastern bloc country. It’s a clear sighted view of division which is important in divided times. The current ‘culture wars’, from the right wing perspective, is all about taking sides and if you’re not for them you are against them.

The film is still available at the Cheltenham online festival here.

Stitches (Šavovi, Serbia, 2019) – CIFF4

Haunted by the past

According to imdb the lead of Stitches, Snezana Bogdanovic who plays Ana, was a leading classical actor in Yugoslavia and her brilliant performance is crucial to the success of this delve into Serbia’s murky past. The narrative centres on the fact that hundreds of children were sold into adoption when their parents were told they were stillborn. Stitches is ‘inspired by true events’ and investigates the emotional fall-out of not being sure about a child’s fate. Ana’s child was taken from her at birth and though it’s 18 years later she is still seeking evidence about what happened, even if it’s only grave at which to mourn. Even though she now has a daughter, Ivana (Jovana Stojiljkovic), Ana’s emotional lockdown means she’s alienated from both her and husband Jovan (Marko Bacovic).

Bogdanovic plays Ana as a dogged pursuer of truth and if, occasionally, a plot point seems to be missing (Ana’s sister, for example, seems to change her mind suddenly) it doesn’t detract from the powerful story. Everyone from the police to health authorities and her family have told her give up her search. It’s not until Ana makes progress that the emotional dam starts to break that we see how good Bogdanovic’s performance actually is. Ana has been almost a blank page throughout the film and Bogdanovic is careful to avoid histrionics as she nears her goal; indeed Ana’s desire is not one we might expect..

The film was directed by Miroslav Terzić (script by  Elma Tataragić) and the camera follows the relentless Ana as she works her way through each day. In one rare scene where she isn’t present Jovan is urged by the police to curb his wife and so we see the misogynist hurdles she has also had to combat. Similarly, in Argentina the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo still await justice – as dramatised in The Official Story.

Her husband is a security guard who has unsocial working hours and there is often some confusion about what time of day it is. This emphasises that, to Ana, nothing other than finding out about her child’s fate is important; she is just going through the motions of life to the detriment of Ivana, whose alienation from her mother is readily understandable. Ana’s existence is economically portrayed as almost dream world or, more accurately, a nightmare. It’s another good film available at the Cheltenham online festival here.

Antigone (Canada, 2019) – CIFF3

Age old dilemmas

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 were, 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.

 

Son-Mother (Pesar-Madar, Iran-Czech Republic, 2019) – CIFF2

Life at the bottom

 Having recently posted about two Iranian films by ex-pat filmmakers, it’s good to see one made in the country itself though it’s doubtful whether it will be screened there. It’s directed by feminist Mahnaz Mohammad who has been imprisoned for her feminist campaigning but bravely hasn’t let that subdue her in this her first feature which is written by Mohammad Rasoulof. It concerns Leila (Raha Khodayari), a factory worker and single mother trying to make ends meet in a dysfunctional society. Leila’s problem is she’s being courted by widower Mr. Kazem (Reza Behboodi) which leads to gossip amongst her workmates that is predictably misogynist.

In addition, economic pressures on the factory, no doubt enhanced by America’s Trumpist sanctions, mean workers are being laid off and are fearful of their position. Leila’s failure to join in a protest further alienates her colleagues from her. She has two children to look after and is estranged from her family so has no support.

The film is in two parts: ‘Son’ and ‘Mother’. Slightly perversely the titles refer to the opposite points-of-view; the first part chronicles Leila’s travails whilst the second follows the son, Amir (Mahan Nasiri), who has to deal with the consequences of not being able to join his mother with Mr. Kazem due to social mores. He’s about 10-years old and his soulful face speaks volumes as he tries to cope as best he can. Presumably the titles are emphasising the characters’ preoccupations.

In a repressive society it is of no surprise that everyone is looking out for themselves hence neighbourliness is in short supply; this was also evident in Under the ShadowTurning ‘the people’ against one another, divide and rule, makes tyranny easier; this is one of Trump’s modus operandi. Iran has been vilified, not entirely without reason, since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and yet has continued to produce some marvellous films. Under repression the urge to speak out by artists is often strongest and, of course they have much to say about misfortune. In western democracies only minorities are obviously exploited and many believe even that isn’t the case.

Ashkan Ashkani’s cinematography captures the bleak cityscape and the director’s documentary background is evident in the social realist mise en scene. When she was unable to attend Cannes in 2011 Costa-Gavras read a letter she sent, stating: “I am a woman, I am a filmmaker, two sufficient grounds to be guilty in this country.” Hopefully she’ll have more opportunities to speak as she has plenty to say. It’s available here.

 

Walking on Water (Italy-Germany-UAE-US, 2018) – CIFF1

Well, not exactly water

Observational documentaries, where the the camera appears to observe what’s going on without intervention, can tell us much about the events recorded. However, they need to overcome the disadvantage of not being able to ‘tell’ us information; there’s no voiceover, for instance, to anchor the images. Andrey Paounov’s documentary starts and ends with intertitles, there’s also one use in the body of the text, otherwise the film just shows Cristo’s installation at Lake Iseo, Italy, being planned, constructed and displayed.

Cristo’s installations are relatively well-known; for example he and his then collaborator Jeanne-Claude (his late wife) wrapped the Reichstag in 1995. It wasn’t so long ago that contemporary art was ridiculed (at least in the UK) by mainstream media; now it is often a tourist attraction (such as London’s Tate Modern). Cristo’s floating pier was certainly popular and it would have been very interesting to learn of its genesis and production however all we get of this are scraps of uncontextualised conversation. I can’t summarise it better than Glenn Kenny:

‘Unfortunately, [Paounov] does not seem to aspire to the Maysles’ level of engagement. In 2006’s “The Gates,” [also by Cristo] for instance… the filmmakers found enormous drama in the negotiations/battles between artists and New York City’s bureaucrats, concerning miles of fabric gates snaked through Central Park…’

Maysles was an observational documentarist too so formal constraints don’t explain the limitations of Walking On Water. Occasionally it’s clear Paounov is making a point: in one scene Cristo is shaking hands at a garden party with (presumably) the ‘great and good’ which is suffixed with a large joint of meat on display. Such satire is welcome but questions about why the Italian administrators allowed too many tourists into the town (it’s suggested the major gets his money from the bus company) are not elaborated upon. I’d like to know why virtually no women are involved and what happened to the material used afterwards (Wikipedia tells me it was recycled). Cristo tells an audience that he paid for the anchors (at $5000 a pop) himself but was that true of the whole construct? A scene were we learn his artwork based on the project are selling for millions shows his business acumen: the installation as a ‘loss leader’?

On the plus side some of the cinematography is startlingly beautiful; 10 camera operators are credited. The pier itself is fabulous and, if it hadn’t been so crowded, would have been great to walk along. This yellow ‘brick’ road is ripe for a semiotic analysis but unfortunately this is not that sort of film though I do think it is worth seeing.

The festival’s available here.