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.

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (Sweden-US, 2011)

Black power to the people

It was timely of MUBI to post this film of Swedish National Broadcast Company news footage on American Civil Rights protests. Director Göran Olsson discovered the footage whilst researching and realised it needed to be presented to a contemporary audience. He starts with an interview with a white, small businessman who reiterates the myth of the American Dream and this frames the impossibility at the time of even believing in the Dream if you were a ‘person of colour’. The Swedish journalists went to where it was at and interviewed, or filmed speaking, key campaigners for Black Power: Elaine Brown, Stokley Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Although, as Olsson says in a Film Comment interview, his film is about the Swedish point of view of the time, in order to not overly privilege this viewpoint he included a contemporary African-American view on the footage with comments from musicians Erykah Badu, John Forté (of The Fugees) and Talib Kweli and professors Angela Davis, Robin Kelley and Sonia Sanchez. As he says, these voices have a feel of a DVD commentary and it’s especially good to hear Angela Davis; the footage includes her trial for abetting murder which was such a farcical charge that (you’d hope) it had no chance of sticking.

Unfortunately what’s most striking about the documentary is how little things have changed for African Americans. The same police brutality and government connivance in repression: all in the ‘land of the free’. One difference is, of course, social media were we can readily see police violence though it is unnerving how this does not curb their brutality. The news media, in the 1960s, were probably more likely to ‘call out’ government malfeasance as the increasing corporatisation of news since the 1980s has mitigated risk taking and investigative reporting. The Swedish reporters’ ‘neutral and friendly’ demeanour comes through strongly as they were seeking the ‘truth’; though Angela Davis’ brilliant putdown, whilst being interviewed in prison on the trumped-up charges (was that phrase named after him?!), showed the inevitable limitations of their perspective. Olsson also includes footage of tourist bus tour of Swedes in Harlem were the racist assumptions aired are shocking today.

The ending, rightly, is bleak as heroin flooded into Harlem and so, successfully, dispersed Black radicalism; a similar policy was used in LA in the 1980s. This uses footage from Lars Ulvestam’s documentary Harlem: Voices, Faces (Sweden, 1973).

The story hasn’t ended; currently there have been more than two weeks of protest in America after George Floyd’s murder on camera by police. It would be nice to think that this will be a turning point, particularly with the Hater in Chief currently occupying the White House and the fact that the protests have extended worldwide. It was good to see slave trader Colston’s statue being plonked into the harbour in Bristol, UK, last weekend though it is likely the forces of reaction will be not far behind. That such mass protests are happening during a pandemic (though police are more likely to kill African American males than Covid19) is worrying.

Cheltenham International Film Festival

Needs-must has placed the Cheltenham International Film Festival online this year and it looks a good line-up. It started yesterday and it’s the familiar online rental terms of 48 hours once you’ve started watching and available for seven days in total (though at least one seems to be less than that). There are links below to three of them I saw in Glasgow and I’ve booked to see six others which I’ll try to blog promptly.



Something Different (O necem jiné, Czechslovakia, 1963)

Concrete abstract

There’s something quite dazzling about Vera Chytilová’s first fiction feature; though roughly half of it is a documentary of sorts. There are two narratives: world champion gymnast Eva Bosáková training for her last event and housewife Vera (Vera Uzelacová) dealing with the difficulties of childcare and being a housewife. Although it is clear that Bosáková’s narrative is documentary, and it climaxes with her final performance, it is shot in often highly abstract ways which are anti-realist. Whether the framing is using extreme close-ups of parts of her body or unusual angles (there are some astonishing overhead shots), Chytilová is not representing reality simply. In addition, Bosáková constantly tells her trainer-husband she can’t do things (possibly an unusual image for a sportsperson to display) and many of the movements are obviously choreographed or Jan Curík’s cinematography would have no chance to keep up with them. I’m not denying the reality of what we’re seeing but noting that the stylisation gives it a constructed feel. From a sporting perspective it is notable that gymnasts of the time were very unlike the bendy youngsters of today but no less brilliant.

The second narrative outlines Vera’s mundane life and is shot far more conventionally. Here we are in a familiar melodrama of an inattentive husband and a wife whose life horizons are severely constricted; though nowhere near as long as Chantal Ackerman’s feminist classic Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Belguim-France, 1975) – which I haven’t seen – there is enough routine shown to give a deep sense of ennui. Several times Vera pauses and says, to herself, “What was it I wanted?”

He’s not even interested in having sex with her

The only link between the two narratives is Bosáková’s appearance on Vera’s television once. However, the two strands are entwined with the superb editing of Miroslav Hájek, facilitated by Chytilová’s camera placement, that uses graphic matches to link the disparate locations. So a close-up of leg might be matched by a close-up of the same shape in the ‘other’ narrative.

Although it may seem that Bosáková has more freedom that Vera she is, mostly, coached by men telling to do things she doesn’t want to do. However, the resolution to her narrative does offer her some hope for the future; for Vera, however, the pattern seems unlikely to change.

Chytilová’s Daisies is on the great Czech New Wave films and although Something Different comes nowhere near the brilliance of that it is something different that is well worth seeing.

Under the Shadow (UK-Jordan-Qatar-Iran, 2016)

Under seige

This was the UK’s foreign language entry to the Oscars but, like the recently posted Tehran Taboo, is essentially an Iranian film made by ex-pats; it couldn’t have been done in Iran. It was writer-director Babak Anvari’s debut and it hits the sweet spot of a horror film that scares whilst emotionally engaging the audience. Narges Rashidi plays Shideh whose medical studies were curtailed by the Islamic Revolution in 1979 because she was left wing; it should be noted that the western-backed Shah who was toppled would also not have been sympathetic toward her. She’s forced to be a housewife rather than emulating her mother, who has recently died. She has a daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), who’s already apparently seeing things when the film starts; her husband is conscripted to a frontline hospital early in the film and Iraq starts sending missiles to bomb Tehran. It’s a fraught situation and Anvari skilfully cranks up the fear subtly treading the tightrope as to whether the djinn is real or a figment of stressed imaginations.

It’s well into the film when the shocks start arriving and reminded me of Dark Water (Honogurai mizu no soko kara, Japan, 2002) in the slow build up and where the building itself apparently becomes a threat. Understandably Shideh’s neighbours start leaving after an unexploded missile embeds itself in the roof leaving mother and daughter to fight amongst themselves; as in The Babadook (Australia-Canada, 2014) Shideh’s daughter is unhappy with the parenting she’s receiving. According to Kermode’s review, Anvari cites Polanski’s The Tenant (France-US, 1976) as an influence and the war setting with children reminds me of The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo, Mexico-Spain) by Guillermo del Toro. However, there’s little sense that Under the Shadow is derivative because of its social context: the repressive version of Islam in wartime. In one scene, when mother and daughter flee into the night, they are arrested because Shideh isn’t wearing a chador. The chador, incidentally, is also also representative of the djinn emphasising how the evil spirit is repression of women.

There are, by necessity, other horror tropes but Anvari and editor Chris Barwell hit their marks brilliantly and I was leaping and yelping around the sofa a few times. The director went on to make Wounds which I’ll have to catch up on.

 

The Proud Valley (UK, 1940)

The workers united…

I knew nothing of the background to The Proud Valley but the swerve towards propaganda at the end felt tacked on; as it transpired to be because war was declared whilst the film was being made. Until then the subversive aspects of the film were particularly interesting and I wasn’t surprised to learn that the scriptwriters Alfredda Brilliant and Herbert Marshall were members of the left-wing Unity Theatre. In addition, having a black hero (the incomparable Paul Robeson) nailed the film as progressive. Apparently Robeson was friends of the husband and wife writing team.

Although Robeson’s acting skills are limited he only has to sing eradicate any problems with his presence. He ends up in a Welsh mining village where, because of his singing voice, he is embraced by the choir. Racism, fortunately, isn’t ignored but the ‘problem’ of his colour for some characters is glossed over quickly. Instead, this man-mountain represents workers’ solidarity, particularly in the face of the mine’s owners who are happy not to reopen the pit after an accident. Such was the lot of the working person in those days… still is of course.

Originally the end featured the community reopening the pit on their own however the start of war meant the film became the first of Ealing Studio’s ‘war effort’ productions and the characters march to London to petition the bosses to open to help with the conflict. Benevolent ‘Sir John’ agrees to give it a go and all ends well; except Robeson’s character sacrifices himself when they are reopening the mine. ‘Bosses and workers’ pulling together was undoubtedly the propaganda message required at the time but it isn’t necessary today. So I wonder why scriptwriter Anthony McCarten felt he needed to add a fictional scene to Darkest Hour (UK-US, 2017) where Churchill rode the London Underground to consult ‘the people’? Worse, ‘the people’ included an Afro-Caribbean man with whom he appears to bond through quoting Shakespeare, so eradicating Churchill’s racism!

I also wonder about the ‘necessity’ of David Goliath’s (Robeson) sacrifice. The romantic interest in the film, as it was unlikely there’d be the odd black woman lurking in the Valleys, is taken by white characters so there could be no happy romantic ending for David; indeed he sacrifices himself for the couple. It creates an emotional ending, but the celebrations for the pit reopening do follow hard behind his death in order to ensure the happy emotion. Couldn’t he have continued just as a member of the community or didn’t he belong after all?

Maybe I’m being over-critical, after all the film is progressive in many ways. As entertainment it struggles; Robeson sings little but there is some sparkling dialogue. It is, however, a testament to Robeson whose connection to Wales continued for many years after the film.

The Hidden Blade (Kakushi ken oni no tsume, Japan, 2007)

Caste-based repression

The Hidden Blade is the second of director Yamada Yōji’s Samurai trilogy, all of which were based on short stories by Fujisawa Shûhei, and was scripted by him and Asama Yoshitaka. I saw the first of the set, Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibe, 2002), on its release and thought is superb. I’ve recently caught up with the other two though the last, Love and Honour (Bushi no ichibun, 2006), didn’t grab me; The Hidden Blade did.

The films are set just before the Meiji restoration that ended Japan’s isolation by bringing in western ideas and, at the same time, changed the role of the samurai; the time was also featured in the superb The Last Samurai. During this transition period, unlike the violent heroism of Kurosawa’s warriors, the samurai were functionaries of court. In Love and Honour our hero is poisoned whilst tasting food for the local lord; he’s permanently blinded and has to deal with his emasculation. In The Hidden Blade the hero, Katagiri (Nagasa Masatoshi), rails against the hypocrisy of his rulers whilst being forced to write a manual for using western weapons; a marvellous symbol of our civilising influence! For the samurai there will be longer the honour of using the sword but the ignomy of mechanical weapons. There’s a humorous thread throughout of the inability of the samurai to march in unison or even run with any speed.

Underneath the political intrigue is a simple love story to which the couple in question don’t even notice themselves as it has no possibility of fulfilment due to their caste differences. The performances of Nagasa and Matsu Takako, who plays Katagiri’s servent Kie, are marvellous. We know that they are in love despite the fact there is no interaction between them that directly signifies this is the case. In addition, the beauty of both landscape, buildings and costumes are  pleasures in all three films of the trilogy; cinematography is by Naganuma Mutsuo (as it was with Twilight Samurai).

The Hidden Blade is not a film without action as there is a climactic battle where Katagiri is ordered to kill his friend who has rebelled against the feudal system. The rigid cruelty of the era is shown in the over-riding impulse of duty and in its treatment of women and lower castes.

Yamada is a formidable artist, and he’s still making films in his late ‘eighties; unfortunately, as far as I can tell, few of them are available in the UK.

Tehran Taboo (Germany-Austria, 2017)

On the margins in Tehran

Directed and co-written (with Grit Kienzlen) by Ali Soozandeh, this is a startling representation of Tehran from the perspective of a prostitute. Startling because it is impossible for films made in Iran to show such things; Soozandeh emigrated to Germany over 20 years ago. In the 1990s Iranian cinema produced a ‘new wave’ of films with directors such as Abbas Kiarostami, the Makhmalbaf family and Jafar Panahi that were ‘validated’ by western criticism. Even in these films censorship meant that it was impossible to represent the earthier side of human life, if the directors had wished to do so directly. So the films are a bit like mid-20th century British cinema, exemplified by Brief Encounter (1945), where the only stiff things in the narrative are lips. Hence seeing Tehran Taboo is something of a shock especially as the first scene shows a prostitute attempting to give a blow-job in the front seat of a car whilst her five-year-old son is sitting in the back.

The woman, Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh), is the character around which three narratives are woven: her attempts to look after her boy; a neighbour’s wife stifled by Islamic orthodoxy; a young would-be musician being conned into providing proof of virginity after a one-night stand. If the narrative around Pari seems to contradict her actions described in the first paragraph it is a tribute to the film that we understand that she has no choice but to do what she does. The hypocrisy of the ruling clerics is laid bare as is the stifling patriarchy that many women suffocate under.

As can be seen from the image, the film is rotoscoped: live action film is rendered as animation. Soozandeh explained he chose this method as he couldn’t film in Tehran and didn’t want to fake the city by shooting in Jordan. Hence, the animation’s lack of photo realism ensures that the representation of the setting is not compromised as it’s clearly not realist. The impact on the spectator is not unlike that of Waltz with Bashir, another serious rotoscoped film. However, unlike in the earlier film where the visuals conveyed the dreamlike memories of the protagonist, here it is obviously reality that is being rendered. The impact of this is to emphasise we are seeing what ‘shouldn’t’ (at least as defined by the censors in Iran) be seen: it’s both unreal and real. ‘Unreal’ because it is animated; ‘real’ because no doubt that such events depicted in the film happen.

This was Soozandeh’s debut feature; I look forward to the next one.