Faces Places (Visages villages, France, 2017)

Still worth watching

Agnès Varda’s last feature film is a true joy. Crowd funded to allow her and street artist, and co-director, JR, to travel in his photo booth to shoot locals and briefly turn them into icons on their walls. There’s a wonderful whimsy, not withstanding the horrible animation of the credit sequence, to the project that conceals the directors’ desire to celebrate the under-represented. These aren’t ethnic minorities, I spotted only two black people in the film, but the ordinary person who populate the parts of France they visited. Thus miners and dockworkers of the working class are shown as well as women.

It’s obviously JR’s schtick to stick up giant images on buildings. They are only paper so don’t last long; like our lives. The black and white images are incredibly striking; moving the last woman living in old miner’s houses to understandable tears. Varda tells her it’s supposed to make her happy; the director’s humanism shines throughout. One of the few overtly political moments was the contrast between goat farms: one burns off their horns to increase production the other doesn’t.

The unlikely friendship between the artists, 60 years apart in age, is one of the joys of the film which is infused with humour. Their relative size, he seems to be twice as tall as she, is one running joke. In one scene an optician’s letter chart is mimicked by people on steps holding letters. Varda says they need to wobble to represent what she sees; she was suffering from an eye disease. It’s both funny and sad showing how Varda came to terms with her infirmity.

So much of television is full of reality TV where characters get to respond to whatever ‘after’ the narrative has provided them with. In Faces Places, though, the ‘after’ is genuinely awe-inspiring: seeing their images writ large and there is plenty of satisfaction in hearing the ‘ordinary people’s’ responses. At a factory, groups of shift workers are placed together to form a community that is, in reality, never there at the same time.

Varda’s film career started with the French new wave and the only sour note in the film is fellow pioneer Jean-Luc Godard’s curmudgeonly non-appearance at the end. Sadness also infuses watching the film now as Varda only died two weeks ago; she comments upon impending death in the film. However, the experience of the film is life affirming because she continued to work and continued to share her humanist perspective with us all. She will be missed.

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.

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.

Divines (France-Qatar, 2016)

Friends

Divines is a banlieue film and the expected ingredients of feisty youth being crushed by the forces of the state whilst living in poverty are present. However, there’s enough difference in the film to make it stand out and I preferred it to the similar Girlhood (France, 2014): they both boast female directors and highlight the female experience. Camera d’Or winning debutant, Houda Benyamina who also scripted, has directed a bravura film that welds melodrama to social realism.

Key to the film’s success is the performances of the protagonists, Dounia (Oulaya Amamra, sister of the director) and Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena), as teenagers full of life but who are compromised by poverty. Dounia lives in a shack on a Roma camp and Maimouna’s father who is the local Imam. In a great scene the pair imagine they’re driving a Ferrari around the estate and, in a Spike Lee ‘double dolly’, they move with the camera with added sound effects. In an uncomfortable scene for an ex-teacher, Dounia demolishes her teacher who’s trying to get her to role play the a receptionist. The youngsters are seen, by society, as nothing more than low paid workers so a life in crime is a sensible option. The local drug kingpin is female, a suitably scary Jisca Kalvanda, who takes Dounia on because she’s got ‘clitoris’ (ie not balls). In another scene that feminises the genre, Dounia voyeuristically gazes at the naked body of a male dancer she fancies.

Unsurprisingly in a first feature the film loses its momentum at points, particularly toward the end. However, the incendiary finale wrenches back the drama. The vicious cycle of living in the world of the underclass is illustrated when Dounia, in a fit of youthful mischievousness, throws a bottle at a fire engine crew so later they refuse to enter the estate without a police escort. The audience is encouraged to understand why such things happen but, as a melodrama, is not offering answers (and there’s no reason why it should).

Benyamina seems to be suffering from the difficulty of getting a second film funded, not withstanding her Cannes award. According to imdb.com she’s directed the pilot of Tell Me Your Secrets, an American TV series and an episode of The Eddy (UK) – both 2019. Of course television is not the ghetto it was and these could be interesting. Divines was snapped up by Netflix, after it played the festival circuit, rather than being distributed beyond France. I guess the money on the table is irresistible to filmmakers when faced with the vagaries of international film distribution for a non-Hollywood film.

 

Aquarius (Brazil-France, 2016)

Invisible woman

Ralph Ellison’s great novel Invisible Man (1952) showed how people of colour weren’t seen for who they were; that problem has not gone away. Another invisible group are old women and writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho makes visible this group who, because they are not deemed sexy, are not viewed as women and, because they are old, are often thought of as irrelevant. Sônia Braga plays Clara a sixtysomething widow who’s the only one standing out against developers in her beachside apartment in Recife, Brazil. There’s more, however, as the film shows her social life and relationships with her family and the conflict with the developers is often sidelined. The two and a half hour running time, which never drags, gives plenty of space for character development and the performances give us believable people.

Braga is brilliant in the lead as we see a determined personality dealing with adversity, age and body deformity. A short prelude, set in 1980, shows Clara as a young woman but the key moment here is a flashback of her aunt’s as her 70th birthday is celebrated. When a youngster eulogises the aunt we see a very short sequence of a couple having sex; presumably this is her memories of when she was young. I say ‘presumably’ because Filho doesn’t signify the scene clearly as a flashback; there are other abrupt switches in the film. It seems to be suggesting what the aunt would rather be doing rather than listening to her great niece praising her. Sex intersperses the film and is explicit.

Like the unclear flashbacks, there are other arty touches. A gust of wind is shown via magazine pages suddenly fluttering, followed by a door banged shut; this heralds the arrival of the construction company. These are ‘heartless developers’ with a particularly Brazilian air of politeness that (sort of) resolves in the climactic confrontation. Before that we get to see the travails of Sonia’s family and her rather matriarchal way of dealing with them. It’s unnerving that the corruption portrayed, no doubt this happens the real world, is even before the current right-wing Bolsanaro got elected so things will get worse in Brazil.

By prioritising the family melodrama strands, as well as her battle with the builders, the film sometimes loses focus. However, that is not a criticism as there’s no reason why narratives shouldn’t sprawl and eschew the goal-driven structure of mainstream films. The film was shown at Cannes and won the Cinema Brazil Grand Prize; it was distributed internationally and it’s now arrived on Netflix.

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.

 

Sunday’s Illness (La enfermedad del domingo Spain, 2018)

An intense scrutiny of parenthood

Despite it’s terrible title (as far as I can tell it’s not an idiomatic expression in Spain) the film made a splash at last year’s Berlin festival and was picked up by Netflix which only released it in cinemas in Spain. Of course, no UK distributor may have picked it up anyway but it is a film that should be seen in a theatre as Ramón Salazar’s direction is quite exceptional. His composition of shots is exemplary aided by beautiful cinematography (Ricardo de Gracia) and brilliant production design (Sylvia Steinbrecht). Salazar also scripted this tale about the nature of parents’ responsibility toward their children. I hesitate to outline the plot in any more detail because Salazar slowly reveals what’s actually happening in a superbly developed exposition.

I’m seeing the director is being compared to Almodovar however whilst the latter leans toward the hysterical, Salazar actually takes a step back from the melodrama offering a cooler take on the emotions on show. This is done through the slow pacing, scenes seem to carry on a little too long, giving the audience time to contemplate what they are seeing. The mise en scene, most of the film is shot in the stunning Spain-France borderlands in winter, adds to the coolness as well as to the beauty of the mise en scene.

There’s a scene, on what appears to be a tourist bob sleigh type contraption, that manages, in a long take, to encapsulate the film’s theme. It is brilliantly staged. The acting is exemplary, Susi Sanchez(an Almodovar regular) and Bárbara Lennie are captivating as the leads; it is a film where men are almost completely marginalised.

Nico Casal’s score is sparingly used but adds greatly to the atmosphere. I would be surprised if this isn’t in my top ten films of 2019 and wouldn’t it be great to organise a festival of films Netflix won’t let you see in cinema so we can gorge and their big screen greatness?