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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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.

 

My Happy Family (Chemi Bednieri Ojakhi, Georgia-Germany-France, 2017)

Missing mum

My Happy Family is a quite brilliant melodrama predicated on a mother, Manana, who leaves her family that has three-generations living together, apparently common in Georgia. She gives no reason as to why she’s going and as the family descend upon her to demand an explanation, motivated in part by the suffocating fear of social embarrassment, it soon becomes clear why she needs to be free.

Nana and Simon, credited as directors, are Nana Ekvtimishvili (who also wrote) and Simon Groß, and My Happy Family is a follow up to their debut In Bloom (Grzeli nateli dgeebi, Georgia-Germany-France, 2013). The visual style is primarily a mix of long takes with an immobile camera and a fluid handheld movement following Manana both in the home and on the street. The long take puts great emphasis on performance and all the actors are superb. The latter, in the home which is often crowded, relies upon skilful blocking (the position of actors in relation to one another and the camera) to allow the camera to carve a way through to keep up with Manana. Nana and Simon direct brilliantly and they prioritise showing over telling allowing the audience to pick up clues about the characters from their body language. At a school reunion one character, who insists Manana sings (the diegetic [in the film not the soundtrack] music in the film is quite fantastic), is succinctly characterised as a ‘dominant male’ through little gestures such as putting his hands on her shoulders.

I recognized Merab Ninidze, who plays the hapless husband, from the TV series McMafia (UK-US, 2018) where he had a mesmerising presence as a Russian mob boss. He’s similarly excellent in this more subdued role. Ia Shugliashvili, in the central role, is new to me and she plays the mother with a mixture of strength and resignation. There are many narratives were an unhappy woman leaves the marital home but there’s invariably a man who appears to reaffirm the need for patriarchy. My Happy Family avoids such cliches and ends with marvellous ambiguity.

Once again I have to thank Netflix for the opportunity to see this film which was feted at Sundance a couple of years ago. Up until recently Netflix seemed to be prioritising television series as a way to hook viewers but it has increased its slate of films. Many are Spanish speaking, which obviously has a wide audience across the world, but it’s great that nations who haven’t had much of an impact on western film culture get a look in too; the Georgian documentary short The Trader (2018) is also available. Apparently it has been argued that Nana and Simon’s films are heralding a Georgian new wave. I hope so as it’s great to see familiar tropes reworked in a different cultural setting.

 

The Wild Pear Tree (Ahlat Agaci), Turkey-Republic of Macedonia-France-Germany-Bosnia and Herzegovina-Bulgaria-Sweden, 2018)

Wrapped up in yourself

I’m totally out of step with the critical consensus on this one, although I don’t resent the 188 minutes I spent watching it, the overall affect upon me was one of torpor. That wasn’t a result of the film’s slow pace but by the long conversations that pepper the film and the suspicion that Nuri Blige Ceylan thinks the positive outweighs the negative in the self-serving male characters.

There are three ‘set piece’ long conversations that the protagonist, Sinan, has when he returns to a rural backwater after graduation. They are with: a female friend from school; a successful writer who Sinan apparently hopes to emulate; two imams. It’s difficult to make long conversations visually interesting and for the religious discussion (apparently this lasts 20 minutes) Ceylan resorts to a walk down a hill with numerous long shots and I often didn’t know which of the three was speaking. In addition, subtitles are a huge disadvantage in a wordy film as too long is spent looking at the bottom of the screen. The discussions were interesting but maybe they better belong in a novel.

Thematically the film’s similar to, Geoff Andrew tells us in Sight & Sound, Ceylan’s early films; I certainly recognised the protagonist’s alienation from Uzak (Turkey, 2002). Initially I was sympathetic to the student returning home to Çan, a place that has little for him, from Çanakkale, where he studied. It’s clear he hadn’t been home for some time which was somewhat puzzling as the journey time was only 90 minutes; presumably this emphasised how much he hated Çan (I don’t know how long it takes to graduate in Turkey). Solipsism in youth is to be forgiven but not in Sinan’s dad who spends his family’s money gambling. He’s meant to be a ‘loveable rogue’ though he’s merely contemptible. Ceylan states he likes complex characters, who have good and bad points; I could only see the negative in the dad.

Some of the cinematography is beautiful, however the director stated he was less interested in beauty and often used a small Osmo camera for portability, sacrificing image quality. There are a fair number of shots were we plod behind the protagonist; this seems to me to be lazy filmmaking. The Dardennes brothers used it throughout (as I remember) Rosetta (France-Belguim, 1999) where it had cumulative power. Presumably the device is intended to aid identification with the protagonist but looking at his back and glimpsing surroundings is not particularly cinematic.

I loved Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and have yet to see Winter Sleep (Turkey-France-Germany, 2014), so The Wild Pear Tree seems to me to be a step back rather than a development in Ceylan’s filmmaking. It must be hard continuing to make ‘deeply personal’ filmmaking which focuses on the merely autobiographical (the character of the dad is based on co-scriptwriter’s Akin Aksu’s). Occasionally the political inserts its head into the film, a local major’s paean to democracy is clearly a dig at Erdoğan and Sinan chats to a friend who is a riot cop; they are the most interesting scenes.

A plea to cinemas screening extremely long films: reduce the puffs, trailers and adverts. The extra 25 minutes added greatly to the pain in my arse.

The Reports on Sarah and Saleem (Palestine, 2018) – LIFF10

What’s the difference?

In the bizarre world we live in where, for example, a President (on average) lies eight times a day, we can be forgiven for losing our grip on reality especially when once trusted news organisations (the BBC in the UK) seem incapable of navigating through the bullshit. One of the symptoms of the west’s drift toward fascism is the concocted controversy about criticisms of Israel’s appalling treatment of Palestinians. Equating criticism of Israel with anti-semitism is pure propaganda and is one of the reasons why news coverage of the conflict in Israel/Palestine is relentlessly one-sided. Earlier this week the Guardian website had to amend the headline ‘Israel officer killed during Gaza raid in which seven Palestinians died’; it’s the sort of reporting that dehumanises the dispossessed and is commonplace. Hence films like this become even more important because we have the opportunity to hear a Palestinian voice; in this case writer Rami Musa Alayan and his brother, the director, Muayad Alayan.

Using genre as a vehicle for making a political point (in a sense it’s impossible to make a non-political film in Israel/Palestine) is a good way of engaging a wider audience and, although slightly overlong, The Records of Sarah and Saleem is a gripping thriller of the Kafkaesque existence of people (particularly Palestinians) in the region today.

Sarah, an Israeli, is having an extra-marital affair with Saleem (Palestinian) which gets complicated when they visit Bethlehem, a Palestinian town just south of Jerusalem. Although nobody knows them there, the consequences of the visit drive the narrative.

One of the pleasures of the film is to see a ‘woman in a hijab’ as having narrative agency. Bisan (Maisa Abd Elhadi) is Saleem’s pregnant wife who is constantly told to let other people handle things when everything goes shit-shaped. She refuses to do so and the film switches tone slightly in its latter part and seems to be suggesting that a way forward in the intractable Israel-Palestine problem is through women.

As well as being part of the Leeds International Film Festival, it was the first screening in the Leeds Palestinian Festival which runs into December. The chilling shots of the ‘Apartheid’ wall and incessant checkpoints, as well as the casual treatment, by Israelis, of Palestinians as an Other, give an insight into the wretched world created by the Balfour Declaration over 100 years ago. And, it’s a riveting thriller.

Three Monkeys (Üç maymun, Turkey-France-Italy, 2008)

Strife is in the air

Strife is in the air

Nuri Blige Ceylan is one of the most interesting directors around; this is no secret, of course, as his latest film Winter Sleep won this year’s Palme d’Or. It’s taken me a while to warm to him; I eventually ‘twigged’ with Once Upon a Time in AnatoliaWhich is great as it means I’ve got a lot of catching up to do with what is, in essence, an ‘old school’ art house film director. Three Monkeys concerns the fall out of a politician bribing his driver to take the ‘rap’ for car accident. As the image above suggests, there’s trouble in the air.

Ceylan, who also scripted with Ercan Kesal, is a master of ellipsis and pregnant pauses allowing the spectator to fill in the gaps. It isn’t ‘obscure’, as the narrative unfolds, all is revealed but there are moments when you’re not sure what the conclusion of the last scene was. Such ambiguity, of course, is rife in life.

He’s also a master of composition and is very patient in waiting for the right weather conditions to illustrate the melodramatic emotions of his characters (or he also controls the elements). He favours the long take and, unusually, action in extreme long shot even for intimate scenes. This loses something on the small screen but then he is making films to be seen in the cinema.

The cast are excellent, especially Hatice Aslan as the driver’s wife.

The Wind Will Carry Us (Bad ma ra khahad bord, Iran-France, 1997)

Making strange the 'strange'

Making strange the ‘strange’

Abbas Kiarostami shoots his subjects tangentially; that is, he doesn’t necessarily place the camera in the obvious position to tell the narrative. Behzad Dorani plays the ‘engineer’, which is what the villagers in a remote location of Iran think he is, and we come to know the place through his observations. On a couple of occasions Kiarostami’s favoured long take simply focuses, from the position of the mirror, on the engineer shaving. The narrative, at this point, is carried by his conversations with the rest of his film crew; they are in the village to secretly film an ancient sacrament. Similarly, the opening sequence watches them arrive (see above) in extreme long shot, with the telephoto lens flattening the landscape; it makes strange what we recognise. We here the men in car trying to navigate via agrarian directions such as ‘turn left at the big tree’. Dorani, by the way, according to imdb, has only appeared in one other feature, which is remarkable given how brilliant he is in carrying this film.

For much of the film we are not clear what the protagonist is after; he seems to be waiting for someone to die. He spends his time wandering the village and, increasingly hilariously, rushing up the mountain to get a mobile signal. Not a lot is happening in a village where not a lot ever happens; except it does. The film covers birth, life, marriage, death, friendship, education, childhood. All of life in an exotic location is there for the spectator and it is beautifully shot; the colours are quite stunning, both the village, and its surroundings, occasional look like an Impressionist painting.

Making films in Iran is difficult unless they are treading the party line. Kiarostami’s success, and this film won the Palme d’Or, is rooted in his ability to appeal to the western art house audience. There is a slightly uneasy opposition set up in the film between the ‘town’ (the ‘engineer’ is from Tehran) and the apparently simple ‘country’ of the village. Despite the fact the film-maker is indigenous I think we are still being offered an ‘orientalist’ portrayal of a society we know very little of. The place is portrayed extremely sympathetically but we are no more than tourists. To be fair to Kiarostami, he probably feels that way too. Hence the village is ‘strange’ to my western eyes and is shot in a strange (arty) way; but what we learn is that, essentially, the strange is very much the same.

It might not be the same, though, I cannot tell from the film.