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.