Samson and Delilah (Australia, 2009)

Desperate

Warwick Thornton’s second film as director, Sweet Country, blew me away so I had to catch up with this, his debut. In some ways it is less ambitious, which is to be expected in a low-budget, small crew venture but in others, particularly its lack of narrative drive, it is pushing the audience more. Sweet Country had stars; Samson and Delilah has nobodies: I don’t mean that negatively. Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson, who play the eponymous roles (Aboriginal youths) who have no future, were unknowns when they made the film. They are both superb as people who are, in effect, ‘nobodies’: they are stuck in a dead-end community, near Alice Springs; he’s addicted to sniffing petroleum and she has to look after her ailing grandma. The latter makes ‘Aboriginal art’ which is sold for $200 and, as Delilah finds later, is priced a hundred times more in a chic shop.

Samson is almost mute, a melodramatic way of dramatising his lack of power in Australian society. Even his brother, who plays guitar in a band on the porch for no audience, refuses to let him join in. The one time Samson gets hold of the instrument he plays a raucous ‘screaming guitar’ and smiles: violence ensues. It’s not so much a dead end as a hell.

Thornton shows us this dispassionately. He doesn’t go out of his way to get the audience to sympathise with the plight of the protagonists. There are a couple of shocking moments which are shown and then the narrative moves on emphasising that terrible things are quotidian for these people and we understand the resilience of the characters. I mention melodrama, and that’s the genre it would fit into most, however it doesn’t do so comfortably as its observational camera ensures understatement. Yet as the narrative focus is on the relationship of the eponymous characters and, to a lesser extent, their families, melodrama is present. As noted above, there are demands on the viewer (not a lot happens quickly) which also places it firmly in arthouse territory.

As in Sweet Country, Thornton is his own cinematographer (he also shot the hit The Sapphires, Australia, 2012), and he captures the stark beauty of the landscape. There is an Otherness (to my western eyes) to the Australian Bush, as there is to how Aborigines are represented; is that because their culture is so ‘alien’ to western ‘rationality’ or is it merely an example of the exotic for jaded palettes? It could be both, the under-representation of Aborigines is, of course, part of the issue but Warwick Thornton is doing his best to change that. He’s currently working on the second season of Mystery Road, a detective thriller set in the Outback; the first season was excellent.

Bait (UK, 2019)

Realist expressionism

It’s heartening that writer-director-editor Mark Jenkin’s Bait is doing decent business at the UK box office. A low budget, black and white film about Cornish fisherman could easily get swamped by the flotsam from mainstream distributors. What Bait has is a USP (unique selling point) as its ‘low-fi’ Bolex camera approach offers difference to jaded palettes; manna for the bourgeoisie. It is also an excellent film.

One moan first: the film is scored with scratches as if it was an old classic on 16mm that has been in distribution, and maltreated, for decades. These look as if they have been digitally added as they appear in patterns not associated with conventional print blemishes. Apparently these were caused, no doubt intentionally, by the unusual processing materials (including coffee and washing soda) Jenkin used. In my eyes it appeared he was trying to age the look of the print and so enhance the analogue ‘authenticity’ of his monochrome cinematography. In other words, it was an unwanted distraction; unless he was trying to be Brechtian? The obvious post-synching of the sound also supports ‘estrangement’ from the film.

Jenkin has written a Dogme95 style manifesto, ‘Silent Landscape Dancing Grain 13’, which ironically appears to be only available on Facebook (which I won’t use). Here a screenshot from:

Fortunately he hasn’t followed Dogme95 with his approach to composition, and one of the pleasures of the film is the beautiful mise en scene. Unusually there are a number of sequences of montage-editing; another anti-realist technique with Brechtian associations. Overall it struck me as a brilliant debut where the director stretches every sinew to make the film interesting; sometimes he over-reaches himself but there’s no danger of blandness.

I’m not sure what the ‘bait’ of the title is (Ian Mantgani says, “The double-meaning of the title – literal fishing bait and the colloquialism meaning something flagrantly shady”) but the film focuses on the economical difficulties of the traditional fishing industry in Cornwall. Absent landlords arrive at the start to rent out cottages to tourists who want ‘peace and quiet’ whilst the protagonist, Martin (superbly played by comedian Edward Rowe), obstinately sticks to the ‘old ways. His daily routine is shown in realist detail but he also talks to what appears to be the ghost of his dad putting an expressionist mix into the narrative; this is daring and successful. The use of sound is also occasionally anti-realist, for example, objects fall with more weight than they contain, reverberating with their significance rather than simply being caused by molecules of air.

In his Sight & Sound review (September) Jonathan Romney interestingly suggests the film’s form can be compared to comic-book frames and the obviously post-synched dialogue to speech balloons. The framing does use sudden extreme close-ups which is certainly comic-book like. In addition, in some sequences the frames almost appear to be shuffled as inter-cutting between scenes (in the same and different spaces) is very rapid indeed.

There’s no reason why Jenkin’s ‘hand-made’ approach shouldn’t work with other subject matter but, clearly, he was well at home with the difficulties of Cornish fishermen. It’s a fascinating debut.

 

In Between (Bar Bahar, Israel-France, 2016)

Stuck in the middle together

Maysaloun Hamoud’s fabulous feature debut (she wrote and directed) pitches three culturally different women into a flat share: Arab-Christian; devout Muslim; secular Muslim. Set in Tel Aviv, the film received some flack for using Israeli money; the director is of Palestinian descent. I like her argument that it is Palestinian money too! I understand the hatred of Israeli institutions, given how Palestinians are oppressed, however as long as the narrative isn’t compromised, such ‘supping with the enemy’ is pragmatic.

Mouna Hawa plays Leila (above right) a lawyer who takes no shit from men; she is a really empowering character. However Hamoud doesn’t downplay the difficulties of going against the grain and the final shot of the film makes it clear that battles will continue. Newcomer Sana Jammelieh is Salma (left) who schleps between jobs to support her DJing and Shaden Kanboura plays Noor, a computer student. Obviously the narrative drama comes from the culture clash between Noor and the ‘modern’ women but all three are embattled by patriarchy.

I try and check in my white male privilege in life but know that I’m forever tainted by self-serving ideology and I would appreciate Hamoud’s film even if all it did is present the lives of others who are strangers to me; it does more than that as it’s a thoroughly gripping film. Occasionally the narrative seems a little fragmented, as the film switches between the three lives on show, leaving ‘enigmas’ dangling maybe a little too long before being resolved. In addition, for one narrative strand, the resolution seems a little forced even if it is emotionally satisfying. These could be the peccadilloes of a neophyte filmmaker and shouldn’t get in the way of the fabulous achievement.

The performances are convincing and the direction never distracting. One particularly disturbing scene is superbly done as is its aftermath. Like Mustang and Our Little SisterIn Between is a celebration of sisterhood in the face of male stupidity.