Island of the Hungry Ghosts (Germany-UK-Australia, 2018)

Too insubstantial for the tragedy?

Australian filmmaker Gabrielle Brady tells an important tale about the 21st century concentration camps where asylum seekers are processed in ways that dehumanise and are intended to act as a deterrent against others following. Her subject is Australia’s Christmas Island prison which represents the toxic attitude toward migration that many countries have; particularly Britain.

However she constructs the condemnation through metaphors: the millions of migrant crabs on the island and the Chinese folk who take part in ceremonies to guide the ‘hungry ghosts’ – that is those who weren’t buried properly – to peace. The amazing crabs, who migrate to the ocean to lay their eggs, are treated better by the authorities than people trying to find sanctuary in Australia. A ‘lollipop lady’ stops traffic to help them cross; roads are closed; sweepers escort cars to avoid squashing the crustaceans. In the other metaphor, Chinese residents create bonfires and chant to help the ghosts on their way; the asylum seekers are therefore characterised as hungry (for safety) ghosts (as they have no agency as they wait to be processed).

The key migrant narrative is shown through therapist sessions: Peter Bradshaw states these are recreations and as we hear a radio news broadcast stating that anyone talking to the media about detention centres could face up to two years imprisonment that is hardly surprising. It’s a symptom of growing authoritarianism in government that such draconian laws are passed; in the UK non disclosure agreements are increasingly used to avoid embarrassing information being given to the media. It’s a failure of democracy that those in power cannot be held to account.

Unsurprisingly the sessions are harrowing as Poh Lin Lee (playing herself) tries to help the traumatised migrants. Such therapy can only work long term and she is constantly frustrated by the authorities who refuse to give her information about the detainees and ignore her recommendations. She’s living on the island with her family and time is taken to observe their everyday life; I’m not sure what this adds to the documentary.

Brady is to be commended for the film but outrage is probably a more pertinent emotion and although it will manifest itself in audiences with compassion the film cannot work as a call to arms against the disgusting treatment of the most vulnerable in the world. I would have preferred more direct information but that is a light criticism as Brady has made the film she wants which is certainly worth seeing. MUBI.

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And Breathe Normally (Andið eðlilega, Iceland-Sweden-Belguim, 2018)

Lost in translation

Ísold Uggadóttir’s first feature, which she also scripted, won the Best World Cinema Competition at the Sundance Film Festival and highlights the importance of the screenplay in filmmaking. And Breathe Normally‘s script just doesn’t quite hold together as narrative difficulties are often elided by moving on quickly to the next scene. However, this is a minor criticism as the film is a highly involving story about a refugee (Babetida Sadjo) from Guinea-Bissau (due to her sexuality) marooned in Iceland as her passport is fake.

It’s also about Lára (Kristín Þóra Haraldsdóttir), a single mum who also happens to be gay, who’s struggling in poverty and her path crosses Adja’s (the refugee) when she takes a job as a border guard. What struck me is the way Uggadóttir, whose direction is excellent, manages to suggest that social class is the key element rather than race, sexuality or gender. Despite idiots like Tory James Cleverly dismissing I, Daniel Blake because it’s fiction, only the wilfully blind are unaware that inequality in many societies has reached unsustainable levels (inequality is never right but was sustained by the welfare state, ease of credit and expanding economies). What unites the disadvantaged is usually social class; this is not to say ‘identity politics’ are not important, but that Marx’s call for class consciousness to fight exploitation is as valid as ever.

There are few institutions in the film as it is a social realist ‘slice of life’. We see border security at work and some of the workings of the deportation process; we are also shown, briefly, Lára’s son’s school. However it is clear that she is almost as trapped by society as Adja; ‘almost’ because for Lára there is some hope, ironically, in the border guard job: by saving herself and her son she has to oppress others.

Uggadóttir shot the film in Reykjanesbær, a town that houses the international airport in Iceland. It is shown to be ugly and she explains that the film avoids the tourist clichés used to represent the country. It is a bleak film (I won’t give away whether the ending offers hope) that gives a convincing glimpse into the lives of refugees (and the poor) who are often demonised whilst they are invariably the victims. Netflix.

 

Shun Li and the Poet (Io sono Li, Italy-France, 2011)

Effortlessly lachrymose

Effortlessly lachrymose

Documentary filmmaker, Andre Segre, chose a ‘slice of life’ narrative for his first feature and an affecting on it is. Li Shun (Zhao Tao) is working in Italy, paying off the snakeheads who organised her passage, and hoping that her eight year old son can join her. Zhao is a Jia Zhangke regular (see Still Life) and is quite brilliant in this submissive role whilst conveying her inner steel. My work life at the moment is pretty abysmal, however the fortitude of migrant workers renders me pathetic. She forms a friendship with a much older, sympathetic fisherman, another emigre, albeit one who’s resided in Italy for 30 years; played by prominent Croat actor, Rade Sherbedzia. I was slightly uneasy that a cliched romance between an old man and younger woman would develop, however Segre, who also scripted the film, is too adept for that.

Apart from the performances, what stands out in the film is the cinematography by Luca Bigazzi (a character from The Godfather?). The setting is near Venice, we do have one sojourn into that most photogenic of  cities, and the sea and lagoons of north east Italy look superbly melancholic, especially when the Dolomites, seemingly miraculously, appear in the background.

A Fallible Girl (UAE-China-UK, 2013)

A failure of form?

A failure of form?

This first screening of Conrad Clark’s second feature, at the Bradford International Film Festival, had the director in attendance and he explained he was attempting an ethnographic approach to portray the effects of global capitalism. He does this but I thought the film to be poorly made. Others have responded far more positively, see here, and Roy’s view here. Why didn’t I like it?

Narratively it’s obtuse; and there’s nothing wrong with that. The audience has to work to fill in the gaps between the ‘slices of life’, about a female Chinese entrepreneur in the UAE. Sang Juan’s Le Fei, the protagonist, is also unlikeable as a character; she often rudely berates her workers; though I acknowledge that’s probably a cultural judgement. Again, I’m not against narratives that don’t offer easily identifiable characters but when, at the end, we are clearly meant to feel sympathy for her – through mise en scene and music – I wondered why we are purposefully alienated from her at the start. So, I didn’t find the narrative convincing; the direction, for me, was also at fault.

Again I’m not against, per se, poorly composed shots and/or non ‘classical’ styles. Indeed the handheld ‘realist’ style, here almost certainly dictated by budgetary constraints, has much to offer. However, when Clark insists on shooting a conversation using whip pans he does risk both nausea in the audience and being asked the question (politely I didn’t stay for the Q&A) ‘what’s wrong with shot/reverse-shot?’. Similarly he insists on using extreme close-ups, both in sound and vision, presumably to bring us closer to Le Fei, but again it risks ‘unpleasure’ when we experience her slurping noodles. Similarly, the camera often follows characters close-up from behind, which reminded me of the Dardenne brothers’ technique in Rosetta (France-Belguim, 1999). Whilst in Rosetta I felt the eponymous protagonist’s determination to get on, here I experienced being dragged along on characters’ backs.

As Roy notes, there are a few scenes which are clearly documentary in nature; they look like Clark has asked itinerant workers to talk about their lives to one another. Interesting, yes, but they didn’t fit in with the film. As my recent posts on Kim Ki-duk films suggests, I am very interested in hearing about the downtrodden in our world, but there was too much wrong with the film for me to hear them clearly.

And I’m still uncertain as to why she was ‘fallible’ or why she was a ‘girl’ and not a woman.

Import/Export (Austria, France Germany, 2007)

Surreal reality

This is Ulrich Siedl’s second feature and followed a career as a documentary-maker; despite ‘going fiction’ Siedl’s concern is still very much with reality. The film concerns the victims of globalisation who aren’t paid a living-wage, the Ukrainian nurse Olga, or struggle to get work, the Austrian security guard Paul. Olga goes to Austria, after trying internet porn, to work as a ‘nanny’; Paul ends up in Ukraine apparently going nowhere, like the Jack Nicholson character in Five Easy Pieces (1970). In this, the film is similar to Micheal Haneke’s Code Unknown (France, Germany, Romania, 2000) and Michael Winterbottom’s In This World (UK, 2002), both of which also deal with economic migration. However Import/Export is also, potentially, like Carlos Reygadas’ Battle in Heaven (Mexico et al, 2005) which used non actors in extremely explicit sex scenes.

However, while I found Reygadas exploitative – the scenes sex scenes seemed to me to be designed to shock in themselves – Siedl’s portrayal of internet sex was representing a very real employment opportunity for young people and so the shock derives from the existence of the activity and not his filming of it. All the actors, it has to be said, are immensely convincing; a tribute to Seidl’s direction.

Also potentially exploitative are the scenes in the geriatric ward, where Olga ends up. These old folk are clearly at ‘death’s door’ and Siedl’s unflinching camera makes this obvious. As the image above suggests, there is the potential to make fun of these people but Siedl is careful to individuate them and so we can feel sympathy for them (and fear of being geriatric!).

The film is also beautifully shot with some stunning compositions and locations; the Romany’s dilapidated (which understates the case) block of flats is quite astonishing. Neither of the characters meet, we have merely dipped into a few months of their desperate lives enabling us to see the consequences of unbridled capitalism. A brilliant film.

Sin nombre (Mex-US, 2009)

On the track to nowhere

I enjoyed this rather conventional take on migration and gangs, conventional in its narrative drive but unusual in its focus on Central America. There are two strands to the narrative: Sayra is trying to get to USA via Mexico and Caspar, who falls out with his gang leader; the two threads entwine as he tries to escape.

The portrayal of place is excellent, writer-director Cary Fukunaga (an American filmmaker) has done his research well. I particularly liked the scenes on the train, giving us a sense of the desperation of people who have no choice but to travel illegally; reminiscent of the ‘down and outs’ of the Great Depression in America. Less convincing was the gangs which are rather cliched; however that’s not to say that that isn’t how it’s like (how would I know?). I would have liked to see more of why young men are attracted to gang life (no doubt for economic reasons).

For us cosseted westerners, this is an ideal film because we can see the usually-vilified Others (illegals) and so understand better why they are forced to be illegal. This is far better than swallowing the tripe that the mass media peddle.