Running to the Sky (Joo Kuluk, Kyrgyzstan, 2019) – GFF8

Life in Kyrgyzstan

If I had such a list I could now tick off Kyrgyzstan as another country from which I’ve seen a film. It’s an affecting coming-of-age drama where Jekshen (Temirlan Asankadyrov) has to deal with an alcoholic dad and a mum who’s found love elsewhere. Co-writer (with Ernest Abdyjaparov) and director Mirlan Abdykalykov marshals his cast of non professionals well though most of the interest derives from the novelty of seeing a place hitherto outside my knowledge.

The most striking aspect is the way children are bullied, by teachers, into bringing money to pay for such things as the school roof. I’m not judging as no doubt the economics of the country necessitate parental contribution; though I suspect, as in most places, there are ‘rich bastards’ who look after themselves. The film, however, isn’t doesn’t articulate the inequalities but focuses on Jekshen who, fortunately, is a good runner and a local tradition of combing a naming ceremony for a baby with a race, for which there is a prize, means he has the opportunity to get some cash independently of his pathetic dad.

The finale, inevitably, is a race for a big prize and the ending is nicely ambiguous.

I also saw two films in the ‘Are We There Yet?’ free screenings of dystopian films, Children of Men and District 9. Unfortunately the current crisis caused by the Coronavirus suggests we are there, though the understandable (in most countries except the UK and USA) reaction to this does raise the question why governments aren’t treating the climate catastrophe as an emergency as well. Hopefully we won’t end up in a dystopia as portrayed by zombie movies though the supermarket shelves empty (in the UK) of bog rolls and much else does suggest some degree of irrationality amongst the panic buyers. Indeed I heard one woman exclaim, “I’m buying things I don’t need!”

Children of Men remains a great film; the dystopian focus is mainly on the treatment of migrants so its message is even more potent 14 years on. District 9, however, remains a disappointment. The set-up, degenerate aliens marooned in South Africa, is quite brilliant but the articulation of the narrative, with cliche-driven action, still fails to engage me, although the film was a worldwide hit.

My first visit to the Glasgow festival was a hit too. The brief intro given to most films was welcome and the closeness of the venues meant it was easy to get to the screenings on time even if the Vue cinema used was the top floor of a skyscraper.

Meteorites (Les météorites, France, 2018)

Defying inertia

Zéa Duprez, who plays the protagonist Nina, is what makes this film, Romain Laguna’s directorial feature debut, worth seeing. Laguna’s co-credited for the screenplay with Salavatore Lista (and two other ‘collaborators’), and marshals a cast of non professionals brilliantly. However, whilst it’s not quite a ‘by-the-numbers’ ‘summer of love’ ‘coming of age’ story, it knowingly veers close to it. The symbolism of the meteorite, that only Nina seems to have noticed landed in the nearby mountains at the start of the film, is a little heavy handed but Duprez’s performance is anything but.

Nina is a bored 16-year-old falling for a young Muslim lad, Morad (Billal Agab), who we suspect is a ‘player’. The Muslim angle is both significant and irrelevant as religion isn’t important but the portrayal of the ‘everydayness’ of characters of that faith is rare enough to be significant. Morad’s sister, Djamilla (Oumaima Lyamouri), in particular, comes over as typical teen girl and she wears a hijab. The film knowingly plays with the genre by following a conventional narrative trajectory but then veering away from what appears to an inevitable consequence of actions. However, for me, it doesn’t quite veer far enough from convention to be a vital view.

Duprez hasn’t appeared in any other films since and reminded me of Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank (Netherlands-UK, 2009), written and directed by Andrea Arnold, both of whom were probably playing ‘themselves’ to some extent. What’s refreshing, about both films, is the female perspective as well as avoiding any sense of victimhood.

Cinematographer Aurelien Marra captures the slightly austere beauty of the Herault and Aude districts, near Bezier. The humdrum lives of the protagonists in the midst of the landscape is a striking contrast. Inevitably, if you’re brought up in an area then you don’t notice where you are. The film got a ‘Special Mention – International Press Jury’ award as part of the Myfrenchfilmfestival, it’s not clear what that means but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t connected to Duprez’s performance.

Leave No Trace (US, 2018)

Leave_No_Trace

Off the grid in the words

A film without antagonists is a rarity for where will the drama come from? That’s a slight exaggeration as there are narrative problems for the protagonists to overcome but the causes of them are never embodied in characters. Debra Granik’s, she directed and co-scripted (with her filmmaking partner Anne Rossellini who also produced), fiction film follow up to Winter’s Bone is an other superb examination of an American underclass.

The underclass are people who mainstream society disdain and social institutions discriminate against. They are Othered so often blamed for their own predicament. Ben (Dad) and Tom (daughter), played by Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie, live like survivalists in an Oregon forest only entering the nearby Portland for supplies and for Ben to get his medication; he’s a veteran suffering from PTSD. Tom’s a 13-year-old and questions immediately arise as to why she is having to live off the grid; the ‘leave no trace’ of the title is to ensure they aren’t discovered. However, despite the fact they are on public land they are camping illegally and so are captured by the net of social services. They are given dehumanising ‘true-false’ questions on a computer to answer; the right wing love using technology to replace people as empathy is no longer possible (and supposedly saves money). The social workers, though, are shown to be caring and struggle to bring humanity to their work in the face of institutional indifference; the latter is implied, not shown. The antagonist, uncaring social institutions, is barely shown in the film; it is its turn to be unseen like the underclass. Only in a few of scenes is intrusive institutional power dramatised: when Ben and Tom are captured and a minor is taken off a greyhound bus, but even then it’s arguable that young people are being protected. The fact that Ben is a loving dad could not be a ‘given’ for the authorities. Only when a homeless veterans’ camp is destroyed is it absolutely clear that wrong is being done and even here the driver of the wrecking machine is faceless; after all, he would simply be doing his job.

I’ve laboured plot details somewhat to try and give a sense of how the film presents the world in a low key way. There is plenty of drama, though, particularly in the relationship between Ben and Tom which develops in an inevitable, and moving, fashion.

The acting is superb giving authenticity and emotional depth to the narrative. I was convinced that extras in a trailer park were ‘real people’ rather than actors, though the cast listing suggests otherwise. Granik can certainly get fabulous performances from her actors; American folk singer Michael Hurley plays guitar and sings. Most of all Granik challenges our ideas about these people who rarely figure on the radar of popular culture other than being backwoods villains in some Hollywood productions.

 

Rafiki (Kenya-South Africa-Germany-Netherlands-France-Norway-Lebanon-UK, 2018)

The love that dare not

This is an effective ‘coming of age’ film from an unlikely source: Kenya. Co-written and directed by Wanuri Kahiu the film was banned in its native country because it ‘promoted lesbianism’. If anything, the film shows how difficult gay love is in a homophobic society so ‘promotion’ doesn’t exactly cover it. The discriminatory formulation harks back to Thatcher’s disgusting ‘section 28’ that, in 1988, was designed to prevent local authorities in Britain from ‘promoting homosexuality’. So disgust with Kenya for banning such a tender, and not explicit, film must be tempered, in the UK, by the acknowledgement that 30 years ago our government was promoting similarly homophobic messages. No doubt our colonial laws, homosexuality was only ‘made legal’ in 1967 in the UK, contributed to the difficulties Kenya has in acknowledging different sexualities.

Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva are superb as the unlikely couple: Kena quiet and withdrawn; Ziki loud and flamboyant. They are daughters of local electioneering politicians which adds a social dimension to the film’s melodrama. The importance of the Christian church in Kenyan society is acknowledged and so is its homophobia. The pastor’s sermon against difference is shown to encourage the attacks Kena and Ziki suffer; Kahiu shoots a mob scene in a genuinely scary manner. The film itself is as brave as its characters.

The film also portrays patriarchal society, particularly through Kena’s dad, as problematic. He seems to be a genuinely nice guy, he owns a shop and happily gives credit to shoppers that seems to be more than part of his campaign for reelection (presumably as a local councillor). However that hasn’t stopped him abandoning his wife for a ‘younger model’.

Ziki allows Kena to fulfil her potential by giving her confidence; initially her ambition was to be a nurse. However, she is obviously bright enough for even more challenging roles in health care. The ending of the film is nicely ambivalent for no matter how much the audience (I doubt homophobes will be still watching at this point) want the couple to be together, that is not a straightforward option in contemporary Kenya.

Giovanni’s Island (Jobanni no shima, Japan, 2014)

Magic and the reality of war

Magic and the reality of war

Whilst the demise of Studio Ghibli, after Miyazaki Hiyao’s retirement, has been exaggerated it is still reassuring to see an anime released in the UK; particularly one as good as Giovanni’s Island. It was screened as part of an ambitious programme, at the Kala Sangam centre, that attempts to keep arthouse cinema in Bradford after Picturehouse’s takeover of programming at the National Media Museum. After an almost sold out start, only three turned up the evening screening of this film. There are two more showings in the current season – check them out here and here.

Giovanni’s Island is a child eye’s view of the aftermath of  war when  Soviet soldiers occupied the northern Japanese island of the  setting. It’s also a ‘coming of age’ story, not as extreme as JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, however nonetheless it portrays the way in which children, in particular, are psychological (as well as physical) casualties of war. The relationship between ‘Giovanni’ (the non de plume of the protagonist is a reference to a famous Japanese novel Night on the Galactic Road) and Russian girl, Tanya, is heartbreakingly drawn. Some critics found the film sentimental however as the film is a child’s eye view this is entirely appropriate. Whilst there is a fine line between bathos and pathos, I do wonder if critics, who find themselves ‘tearing up’ tend to resist their emotional response by blaming the film.

The animation, as is usually the case with anime, looks fabulous though the drawing of characters is particularly undefined, even by anime’s standards.