Soni (India, 2018)

Strength in sisterhood

This low-budget, low key film about female police officers in Delhi lingers in the mind. Written, directed and edited by Chandigarh-born, and American educated, Ivan Ayr the film has an observational documentary quality that downplays potential drama; in one scene, the protagonists listen to corrupt cops extracting bribes. It is shot from their distant perspective and this serves to drain the drama but at the same time maintains a realist viewpoint. By subverting genre expectation, we expect the good cops to sort out the bad ones, the film signifies its realism. This is further reinforced by the use of sequence shots throughout; all the scenes are shot in one take.

Soni (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) is a cop with a temper; she’s used as bait on the streets of Delhi to trap men who sexually abuse women. Her superior, Kolpana (Saloni Batra), tries to rein her in whilst protecting her from her the police hierarchy. Key to the film is the developing relationship between the women which is more important than the cop narrative. Both the actors are newcomers (it’s Ohlyan’s first film and Batra’s first feature) and they stand up very well to the strains of the long takes. Vikas Shukla is superb as Soni’s ex-boyfriend who’s trying to wheedle his way back into her affections.

David Bolen’s cinematography is excellent capturing the urban night-time wasteland of the streets that serves as Soni’s workplace.

I was surprised the film was authored by a male as he seems to me to capture a female point-of-view with great authenticity. He researched the police procedure thoroughly but also portrays the position of women, even putatively powerful ones as police, in patriarchal India. Radio news reports punctuate the soundtrack about having the apartheid of women-only public transport to protect them against men. At the film’s conclusion it’s clear that the film argues that the nepotism of Indian society has to change in order for there to be a fundamental improvement in the lot of women.

Ayr takes on not just the would-be rapists and the boys who know their influential parents will protect them should they get into trouble. Kolpana’s family gently hint that she’s not getting any younger (she’s 30) and so should be having children. The insistence on motherhood must, for some, become a stultifying bind and Batra subtly portrays her character’s frustration whilst trying to avoid confrontation.

The film was celebrated at some film festivals last year but not distributed in cinemas in the UK. It’s ‘washed up’ on Netflix.

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Mandy (UK, 1952)

Wall of silence

Mandy was Alexander Mackendrick only non-comedy Ealing film and by my reckoning it is one of the great films of British cinema. A highly intense melodrama, the film focuses on a congenitally deaf girl, played brilliantly by Mandy Miller, whose middle class parents fight over how best to care for her. Terence Morgan’s dad, Harry, is a typical male who wishes to hide from difficult choices whilst Phyllis Calvert’s mum, Christine, refuses to give up on their daughter. Jack Hawkins plays his usual stiff upper lip hero, a teacher who cares deeply for his charges.

The script, by Nigel Balchin and Jack Whittingham (based on Hilda Lewis’ novel The Day is Ours), parallels Mandy’s disability with the failure of communication between the adults, including the repressed Harry’s parents. If my description of Hawkins above sounds disparaging, I don’t mean it to be as when he agonisingly starts to fall for Christine his pain is apparent. He has to fight Ackland, a trustee who cares more about appearances than the children, who plots his downfall. This man’s hypocrisy is subtly portrayed through his secretary with whom he’s clearly having an ‘affair’. (Funnily enough the actor playing the role, Edward Chapman, reminds me of Brexiteer Tory MP and entirely unself-aware idiot, Mark Francois).

It’s designed to be a tear-jerker and Mackendrick’s direction intensifies this further; even the act of a child slipping their hand into an adult’s becomes laden with emotion. He uses expressionist devices sparingly but with devastating effect. As Mandy peers out of her backyard, a (almost) choker shot (cutting her off at the neck) emphasises her pained loneliness. Shadows veil characters as repressed emotions threaten to break out. A close-up of the back of Mandy’s head signifies her deafness. At one point the sound disappears to mimic Mandy’s experience and the silence is devastating.

There’s a educational element in the film that never feels contrived: a new teacher struggles to deal with the children and the etiquette of ensuring deaf people can see a speaker’s mouth is seamlessly integrated into the narrative. Charles Barr, in Ealing Studios, suggests the film is about childhood in general in the post-war era and certainly the old fashioned characters, Harry’s parent and the wing-collared trustee, are shown to be in the wrong. Presumably this was the time that ‘children should be seen not heard’ was at last being challenged as compulsory education to 15 extended childhood.

The scene when Harry hits Christine for her stubbornness reminds us that domestic violence was (almost) acceptable. A lawyer even suggests that although women often deserve it the courts frown upon it. That Christine later accepts she deserved hitting is doubly chilling and is not something that the film vindicates.

Mackendrick directed only a few films and this, and Sweet Smell of Success, deserve the appellation ‘great’.

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.

Everybody Knows (Todos lo saben, Spain-France-Italy, 2018)

Not knowing

Asghar Farhadi is one of the few arthouse auteurs whose films are almost guaranteed to be distributed in the UK; possibly because he’s won two ‘best foreigner’ Oscars. Everybody Knows showcases his command of film language, his ability to bend genre and boasts a great cast including Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz and Ricardo Darín.

It also revisits About Elly (Darbareye Elly, Iran-France, 2009) that used the thriller genre trope of a missing person to unravel familial and societal mores of middle class Iranian society. Some reviewers have suggested that Everybody Knows isn’t quite as successful because Farhadi (he wrote and directed) is in a foreign landscape. I don’t know Spain well enough to comment though little of the milieux didn’t ring true and I got a clear sense of the traditional importance of ‘land’ to the locals. What didn’t quite convince me was the use of genre: readers of the blog will know I love melodrama but when a particularly ‘soapy’ narrative development occurs in the film I didn’t feel it worked. It was too generic because, whereas in About Elly we always knew we were in an ‘arthouse’ film, the development centralises melodrama as the defining discourse. That’s not to say the film isn’t gripping and interesting and that’s not simply because Cruz, Bardem and Darín are in the cast. In fact the whole ensemble, the narrative is built around a family wedding, are superb. The early scenes convey with vigour the excitement of a family get together as the camera and editing are almost a whirlwind as the numerous characters are introduced. It is bravura filmmaking.

Another reservation was the conclusion that felt rather abrupt. Sure, Farhadi makes clear the repercussions of the events of the film will continue after the last reel but the psychological trauma of ‘missing’ isn’t addressed. This could be Farhadi using genre to set up an expectation and then not delivering upon it. However, I don’t think my dissatisfaction was caused by its ‘failure’ as a genre film, but the ending didn’t ‘ring’ psychologically true.

I don’t want to end on a negative note because I thoroughly enjoyed the film. Apparently it has been in gestation for some time but Farhadi was waiting for Cruz and Bardem to be available. It was worth the wait and the film is worth seeing if only for the charismatic ease with which these two stars operate. Add Ricardo Darín, the great Argentinean actor who carries the weight of a less flashy role superbly, and you have an unmissable film.

Capernaum (Capharnaüm , Lebanon-France-USA, 2018)

A cure for dry eye

Nadine Labaki’s (she directed and co-wrote) astonishing film was ‘inspired‘ by the number of children, many Syrian refugees, on the streets of Beirut. Using a contrived, though nonetheless effective, device of Zain (above right) suing his parents for having brought him into the world, the film unfolds in flashback explaining what had come to pass. Such social realism, the film very much exists in the grime of poverty-stricken lives, is not new, however the brilliance of this film is rare. Much of the film’s power comes from Zain (played by Zain Al Rafeea), a vagabond who finds himself looking after Yonas after the latter’s mother is arrested as an illegal. Not only do we see his indefatigable character do everything in his little power to look after the little one, but it’s done in an entirely convincing way. Like most of the actors in the film, Zain is a kid off the street, which no doubt feeds the immediacy of the drama.

This authenticity is down to Labaki’s brilliance (she also directed the superb Where Do We Go Now?) as she coaxes fantastic performances from amateurs and captures the drama with her camera. There are numerous shots on the street that are slightly high angle on the children serving to minimise the background. I noticed a few times feet walking into the frame and suddenly stop short as if they’d just noticed the camera. This suggests much of the shooting was not only done on location but without shutting down the street; incredibly difficult conditions in which to work no doubt. The result shows on the screen as the chaos (which is what capernaum means) is ingrained on the screen; actually ‘Hell’ might be a better title but that’s from a coddled western perspective.

It takes a lot for me to ‘tear up’ and blubbing is just about unknown but I only just managed to choke down the latter (to do so is a reflex). Of course that’s what melodrama is intended to do, though only the framing narrative device noted above is particularly melodramatic. Occasionally Labaki goes beyond social realism and the film takes wing; for example when well-meaning Christians go to raise the spirits of prisoners. The extended montage shows both prisoners joining in and those for whom nothing can alleviate their misery. It is a stunning sequence.

No doubt that this will be one of the best films I see this year and although I probably just favour Roma, I wished Labaki’s film had been acknowledged at the Oscars because this type of filmmaking needs more support than Cuarón. Everybody needs to know what’s happening in the world to be able to break out of their insularity and unfortunately Capernaum is very much about the world and now.

 

No Trees in the Street (UK, 1959)

Social problem noir

Willis Hall adapted his own play for J Lee Thompson to direct and it has a top of the range cast including Sylvia Sims, Herbert Lom and Stanley Holloway. Juvenile delinquency was a hot topic in the ‘fifties but this film is set, after a contemporary framing device featuring a very young David Hemmings, in the 1930s. The bird’s eye view shot of the Isle of Dogs (prefiguring the UK TV soap opera Eastenders title graphic) during the credit sequence firmly places the film in the East End slums and the film does a good job of representing the degrading environment in both the set design and the scratty clothes of the crowded streets.

Part of the difficulty ’50s cinema had to contend with was the narrow representations afforded women: basically the virgin-mother-whore types. However No Trees in the Street deals with this well for, after ensuring we understood Sims’ Hetty to be ‘sweet and virginal’, it allows Lom’s small time racketeer, WIlkie, to seduce her. I guess this was a ‘cutting-edge’ scene at the time in British cinema. Characterisation is a strength of the film as Lom fills the role with conflicted desperation; he’s a migrant who’s pulled himself up by his bootstraps and the film makes clear that crime was one of the few options available out of poverty. It is his decency that wins over Hetty but his insecurity is never far away. Stanley Holloway is, as ever, his excellent self as a has-been who finds solace in a bottle.

Thompson’s direction is excellent too with many shots obviously inspired by film noir; for example the low angle as the good detective thumps Wilkie makes him loom over the hoodlum. Thompson was on a roll at the time with Yield to the Night (1956), Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957) and Ice Cold in Alex (1959). Melvin Hayes, in his debut, has the right scrawny build for the pathetic teenager brother of Hetty whose desperate attempts to get money drives the conflict.

The film betrays its theatrical origins with its restricted settings but this does add to the claustrophobia of the characters’ world. Ronald Howard’s portrayal of the good guy copper is a little dated now though the exchange he has with his boss, who oozes contempt for the poor, brings a dash of modernity. As the title suggests the film is falling on the side of social circumstance (rather than innate badness) as responsible for crime and at the climactic moment Hetty assures her brother no one is born evil. It’s ironic that, in the framing scenes, we are shown the street now happily renovated with… high rise flats.

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.