Escape from Raqqa (Exfiltrés, France-Turkey, 2019)

Into hell

Scriptwriters Benjamin Dupas and Emmanuel Haman (who also directed) based their film on a true story of a French woman, Faustine (Jisca Kalvanda), who took her child to Syria intending to help the victims of Assad’s government but ends up imprisoned, and working for, ISIS. The is Haman’s first fictional feature and his documentary background ensures we get a clear sense of place (the non-French locations were shot in Jordan) and it works very effectively as a thriller as Faustine’s husband, Sylvain (Swann Arlaud, miles away from the whimsy of The Bare Necessity), tries to facilitate his family’s exfiltration. There’s excellent support from Finnegan Oldfield, as the aid worker with expertise in the area, and Charles Berling as Patrice, Sylvain’s boss, who has connections to the French government.

What the film lacks is backstories, particularly for Faustine; why does she take her child into Syria? There’s a perfunctory suggestion that she wants to do ‘good’ but, unlike the case in the UK of Shamima Begum who was 15 when she went to join ISIS, we need more explanation why the older woman thought it was a viable plan. We have a sense of her disillusionment with aid efforts, but little of whether she is disgruntled with her husband, so more was needed for us to see her other than stupid. The UK government’s decision to strip Begum of her citizenship is disgraceful and the film shows the French authorities to be little better as Sylvain’s attempts hit a brick wall. To be honest suspicion of those who aid ISIS is warranted but the French officials are shown simply to be uncaring bureaucrats. Similarly, Oldfield’s aid worker, Gabriel, is unhappy with his role as a translator to an NGO in Turkey; why isn’t made clear.

However, these are relatively minor points as films that deal with the realpolitik should be celebrated, particularly if they are done so well. The portrayal of life under ISIS shows a dysfunctional world where women are slaves; though the sexual element, perhaps fortunately, is not shown. As in The Swallows of Kabul, male dominated, militaristic society approximates, at the very least,  ‘hell on earth’. The film doesn’t delve into how this came about (the US-UK invasion of Iraq) but it’s unfair to presume a fiction entertainment, for it is essentially a thriller, should give us all the details; though more would have been welcome.

Of the films I saw in the Myfrenchfilmfestival2020 this was certainly the most entertaining.

Beauty and the Dogs (Aala Kaf Ifrit, Tunisia-France-Sweden-Norway-Lebanon-Qatar-Switzerland, 2017)

A fairy tale written by Kafka

Like SoniBeauty and the Dogs relies on sequence shots (scenes shot in one take) to drive the narrative and writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania brilliantly harnesses the acting talent to portray a nightmarish series of events during one night. We meet the protagonist, Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani), during the credits confidently preparing for a disco but the following eight chapters (signed by intertitles) show her disintegration after she has been raped (mercifully this ‘chapter’ is omitted). The film then follows her attempts to report the crime, aided by a friendly young man she’d fancied at the disco.

Ben Hania isn’t just recreating events, which are based on a true story, but commenting upon post-revolution Tunisia, after President Ben Ali was deposed in 2011. She shows the forces of reaction remain strong as, for example, Mariam is refused treatment at a hospital without ID, which she lost during the attack. Comments are made about her (slightly) revealing dress suggesting she somehow deserved to be raped. Such sentiments are not absent in western judiciary and media so we shouldn’t feel smug about how ‘backward’ this is.

Most of the action takes place during one night, beautifully shot by Johan Holmquist (his only imdb credit!). Variety complained that ‘Ben Hania’s almost chilly mise-en-scène lessens the emotional impact of the protagonist’s truly nightmarish plight’ and the narrative was unbelievable because so much happens to the victim. I struggle to understand how, given the Al Ferjani’s incredible performance, the emotional impact can be anything other than staggering; for me, the blues of the mise en scene are perfect for the coldness of the society that allows such treatment to occur. As to the writer’s second point, that is what gives the film its Kafkaesque quality: the trauma of the rape is made worse by the difficulty in getting recourse to justice. What happens to her is screamingly unjust and thus shows the absurdity of social institutions.

Unlike Soni, where the camera’s positioning sometimes distanced us from the drama, the sequence shots serve to ‘immerse’ us in the action. This immersion is emotional as the scene plays out in real time, the lack of editing signifies a lack of manipulation as we know the action we are seeing was actually played out by the actors. However, Ben Hania’s direction isn’t just ‘follow the action’ as she carefully frames, and reframes, the composition and the steadicam movement always flows in an aesthetically pleasing way.

The film was screened at Cannes and I look forward to seeing Ben Hania, and Al Ferjani’s, next films.

Detroit (US, 2017)

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Enduring racism

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (like Detroit scripted by Mark Boal) played loose with the truth when stating CIA’s torture was instrumental with bringing Osama Bin Laden to… well, it wasn’t exactly justice. She may well be doing the same with Detroit, as unpicking contested truth 50 years after the event is always going to be contentious, however here it is entirely justified because of the essential truth of a racist justice system.

In many ways it is an extraordinary film as the first 20 minutes or so is a mosaic of events and is as anti-Hollywood narrative as Hollywood gets; though producer Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures does strive to go beyond the mainstream. As Bigelow said, in a Sight & Sound (Aug. 2017) interview, her intention was to move from the macro, the riot, to the micro, the notorious events in the Algiers Motel. This is accentuated by the use of relatively little known actors (to me at any rate), it wasn’t until John Boyega’s appearance that I had a face to latch on to. Algee Smith plays would-be Motown singer, Larry, who becomes as close to a protagonist the film has; he is superb (as is Boyega).

Once the scene is set we are immersed in Bigelow’s trademark intense direction as racist cop, played with vital viciousness by Will Poulter, ‘interrogates’ the unfortunates in the motel. This viewer at least was mentally pleading for a ‘good guy’ to step in and stop the violence but reality isn’t Hollywood. I don’t know whether police violence against African Americans is on the rise, or whether social media is making it more visible, but the problem dramatised in the film has not gone away; see also The Hate U Give, which also featured Smith.

The Sight & Sound reviewer argues the final part of the film, the trial, is deal with in a perfunctory fashion. Court scenes are never my favourite and by eliding most of the discussion we get just enough to see that justice (mostly) wasn’t done and that is sufficient.

The relatively cheaply made ($35m) film bombed in North America. Was this due to the non-Hollywood opening or a reluctance to engage with depressing topic? Whatever the reason the film is an essential statement about racist America both in the 1960s and now.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (UK-Malawi, 2019)

Uncertain feeling

‘True life’ stories are invariably uplifting and the title gives away the film’s denouement. While that’s not a reason to avoid a film I was feeling a little uneasy about the prospect of being made to feel good about a film set in rural Africa. Was the purpose of the film to salve my western guilt about those less privileged than I?

There was no need to worry because director-star and scriptwriter Chiwetel Ejiofor has ensured that there’s enough realpolitik about, in this case, rural Malawi that the uplifting ending can’t disguise the privation suffered by the people. The film is based on the titular hero’s book and we duly get the end credits filling in what happened to William Kamkwamba next. But the journey there is truly tough as Ejiofor ensures we understand the problems of education, politics, climate change and capitalism that beset the village community. Most striking of all is the need for free education for all children.

Ejiofor plays William’s dad I wondered whether his charisma was a little too powerful for his character, the melodramatically named (and presumably actually named too), Trywell. Obviously his star wattage was essential to getting the movie made and he, creditably, even learned to speak the local language, Chichewa, though much of the film is also in English. However, he is such a fine actor, and patriarchy is so strong in the African community, that ultimately the casting worked because it made clear how hard it was for William to challenge his dad.

Ejiofor defended the decision to distribute via Netflix (see here) but his hope that it would also be seen in cinemas appears to have been dashed (apart from some festival screenings). Obviously much is lost on television when the cinematography, courtesy of Dick Pope, is widescreen. Presumably the BBC’s involvement means it won’t be too long before it appears on terrestrial television.

As Extinction Rebellion activists make their presence felt, it’s important to see the impact climate change is having on communities who live on the verge of starvation. It might give some perspective to the whingers who have been complaining about the prospect of having to change their lives or face annihilation. It seems some believe that climate catastrophe will only affect poor countries (I spoke to an American who was relaxed about the idea that Bangladesh will disappear), not understanding that there is only one ecosystem on planet Earth.