Sonita (2015)

This week I’m covering documentaries which screened at the Sheffield Doc/Fest in the past (this year’s programme is online, and taking place this month), and the 2016 winner of the Youth Jury Award was this film about an Afghani/Iranian rapper who left to pursue her musical dreams and now finds herself a de facto activist against child weddings.


A sweet and likeable film about a young Afghani woman living in Tehran, Sonita Alizadeh سونیتا علیزاده, whose family want to sell her as a bride but she has different ideas. Specifically of course, as documented by the film crew who are following her, she wants to be a rapper. Along the way she drags the director into her plans and things take a different turn from what we expect. The film gives a strong sense of the intersection of tradition and patriarchal violence, and from a Q&A at the screening afterwards, Sonita’s dreams after the film were of becoming a lawyer and working against child marriage, so that’s pretty great too.

Sonita film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami رخساره قائم مقامی; Cinematographers Behrouz Badrouj بهروز بدروج, Ali Mohammad Ghasemi علی محمد قاسمی, Mohamad Hadadi محمد حدادی, Arastoo Givi ارسطو گیوی, Parviz Arefi, Torben Bernard, Ala Mohseni; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at Ritzy, London, Friday 11 March 2016.

Chamissos Schatten (Chamisso’s Shadow, 2016)

Ulrike Ottinger is a filmmaker who came out of the 1970’s New German Cinema, making distinctive and odd films like Madame X and Ticket of No Return, before moving on to film a number of works in Mongolia and the furthest east, where she has shown a huge amount of interest in ethnography. This film fits in with that, and while it is in a sense a travelogue, it’s also very much a film about the way that history is latent in the present cultures of the Bering Sea, and the continuum of practices since the 18th century (when some of the texts she reads over these images are taken from). History, then, is indivisible from present-day life, and undoubtedly will continue to be for many generations.


An epic ethnographic documentary in four parts, this covers the cultures and people living around the Bering Sea, both on the Alaskan and Russian sides. As you might expect from the running length it does so in some detail, and as suggested by the title, it also links in historical perspectives. Specifically these come in the form of texts written by naturalist Georg Steller (who accompanied Bering on his exploits), then a century later by Adelbert von Chamisso, a poet and botanist, as well as a little bit from James Cook. However, it’s director Ulrike Ottinger’s voice and cinematic style which dominates the film, though in a respectful way, observing and allowing the people of the region to move about their lives and tell stories when they feel compelled.

It’s difficult to sum it all up in a short review, but the sense I got was of a continuity between Steller in the 18th century and the modern scenes, as a lot of the same practices and customs take place that he described, even if political changes have meant movements of the populations and the closure of the borders between the two nations (which come closest at the top of the world, between the Big and Little Diomede Islands, between which also runs the International Date Line). A lot of the shots of the expanse of this wilderness are breathtaking, but it’s in the simple details too that the film shines, in just pointing the camera at the people, and if some of the sequences seem too long for comfort (some hunters skinning and cutting up a seal), others you feel could go on for an entire chapter (the indigenous people demonstrating their dances was a particular highlight).

Chamisso's Shadow film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Ulrike Ottinger (based on texts by Adelbert von Chamisso and Georg Steller); Length 720 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 May 2020.

Two 2018 Films by Sergei Loznitsa: Victory Day and The Trial

For my history themed week, I’m focusing on a couple more films which are somewhat tangential to history, both made by a Ukrainian filmmaker. The Trial takes footage from the 1930s and uses it to make a point about the way that events are manipulated by the (state-controlled) media, whereas Victory Day is about the way that history informs the present, specifically World War II, taking a celebration of Soviet victory over Germany, but as it unfolds at a monument in Berlin itself. These are slow, self-effacing documentaries that nonetheless reveal something fairly interesting about the ways we relate to history, and the way it can be used.

Continue reading “Two 2018 Films by Sergei Loznitsa: Victory Day and The Trial”

Two Films about the Personal Legacy of Revolutionary Activity: What Walaa Wants (2018) and Born in Evin (2019)

The topic of resistance includes not only stories about revolutionaries but the stories of their legacy and influence, particularly on their children. These two films are about two such children, who may have grown up either surrounded by conflict and in the often painful absence of their parents (as in the Palestinian story of What Walaa Wants) or, at the other extreme, in complete ignorance of their parents and revolutionary activities, having begun a new life in exile away from those traumas (as with the Iranian daughter of revolutionaries living in Germany, in Born in Evin). Neither film can be entirely satisfactory, because it feels like two people grappling with uncertainty about how to exist in the world, given these backgrounds, but both are illuminating about the generational nature of resistance and trauma.

Continue reading “Two Films about the Personal Legacy of Revolutionary Activity: What Walaa Wants (2018) and Born in Evin (2019)”

A Hidden Life (2019)

A discussion that has cropped up once again in political and media circles has been around “antifa”, and every time it happens a lot of people with the same wearied tone have to explain it’s not an organisation, it’s an ethos, a motivating ideal, a praxis and a shared struggle: it is just short for “anti-fascist”. Such struggles can take an explosive, active form, and there are no shortage of World War II movies to illustrate that (though most are Hollywood stories of heroism against the odds). Terrence Malick’s most recent film instead deals with the internal contortions, of morality and faith competing with self-preservation, and the way that just these simple acts of resistance can carry their own dangers. The only thing that “antifa”, such as it is, calls us to do is to resist fascism. All that I can hope is that to continue to do so is something which does not lead to the outcome in today’s film, but as some of the world’s largest countries have taken an active turn towards demagoguery and fascism, that is starting to seem rather more perilous.


I haven’t really connected with many of Malick’s films since The Thin Red Line (and certainly not the last few), as he’s progressively loosened his narrative focus in preference for impressionistic movements. However, with A Hidden Life, he seems to have reined this extravagance in a bit (though the stylistic tics are still very much evident), not to mention choosing a setting and theme that seems more fitting to his particular style. Of course, there’s still plenty of voiceover, used more as another layer of sound than to convey any specific information, and he takes the interesting decision to have the film in English except where perhaps the words are less important — background chatter, bureaucratic invective, in which case it’s in German.

It’s an odd film, though, that bathes this story — of Franz (August Diehl), an Austrian peasant in the early-1940s, who grimly resolves (with an at times wavering, but nevertheless increasingly bitterly held, sense of moral clarity) to defy military tribunals and not speak the ‘Hitler oath’ — in a certain sort of beatific calm, which makes sense given he was after all beatified not so long ago. There’s little sense of the actual war, and perhaps in 1940-1943 (when the film is set), it hasn’t particularly reached the alpine Austrian setting of St Radegund or even the Berlin prison he’s shipped off to later. There’s one chilling scene where the village’s mayor inveighs against the dangers of immigrants and foreigners, despite clearly having none in his midst, which obviously remains current, but otherwise this is very much focused on Franz and (almost equally) his wife Franziska, grounding their story in the community and (as you might expect from a Malick film) the glory of the natural world. It’s not even quite as overtly spiritual as some of his more recent films have been, though given Franz’s Catholic faith and his later beatification, it is obviously imbued with that throughout.

I liked it, and didn’t even feel the running time once the movie started to hold me. It’s shot with some oddly distorting lenses, and the camera operators must all have been children given how close to the ground the camera seems to be most of the time, but Malick’s impressionist excesses aren’t so much on show or are perhaps less jarring when not juxtaposed against Hollywood or indie music backgrounds.

A Hidden Life film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Terrence Malick; Cinematographer Jörg Widmer; Starring August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Michael Nyqvist, Jürgen Prochnow, Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruno Ganz; Length 174 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Friday 17 January 2020.

Die Antigone des Sophokles nach der Hölderlinschen Übertragung für die Bühne bearbeitet von Brecht 1948 (Suhrkamp Verlag) (Antigone, 1992)

Taking a rather more abstract approach towards the theme of resisting demagogues is this film by the directing partnership of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, whose films have increasingly illustrated a certain high modernist style in the cinema, one that is almost architectural, especially given the unmoving statuary of their actors (though that at least seems earned given this film’s origins in ancient Greek drama). It also features one of their typically unwieldy titles, which is far more about explaining the origins of the text as evoking any particular feeling. At some point, I need to devote some proper space to the way that my own feelings towards Straub-Huillet’s films has progressed over the years (sometimes they bore me, sometimes I love them, and I think most of that is in me, as their own gaze seems almost sublimely disinterested in how anyone might feel). For more context about their work, Pedro Costa made an excellent documentary called Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001). This film, Antigone, is currently on Mubi, though leaving very soon I believe.


I’ve seen a number of Straub/Huillet films, and I find myself constantly on the cusp of really “getting” their work. By this period of their output, certainly, they had pared down their dramaturgy to having their actors stand and emote in particular ways in a particular setting, often not looking at one another, often unmoving, sometimes just looking at the text, and it certainly has a peculiar affect. Here they take a Brechtian update on Sophocles play, but stage their actors in ancient Greek ruins, bringing it somehow back to the original in a way. There is perhaps less artifice in the staging (in terms of sets), but the ruins and the togas and the statuesque poses bring their own form of reinvention to the text. I feel I would have got a lot more out of this (and it’s a feeling I have with a lot of Straub/Huillet’s work) if I had been familiar with the original play better, but through the staging and editing and the excellent declamatory acting, it becomes clear what’s going on, and it’s a universal theme as resonant today, right now in our world of demagogues and oligarchs, as it was when it was written, of a powerful ruler who loses all those around him whom he loves because of a hubris that slights the gods (the refusal to bury a fallen leader). Even when I felt the text going over my head, there was still a solid, silent power in the staging, almost a purity that carries the film through.

Antigone film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (based on the play Antigone by Bertolt Brecht, itself adapted from Friedrich Hölderlin’s translation of the play Ἀντιγόνη by Sophocles Σοφοκλῆς); Cinematographer William Lubtchansky; Starring Astrid Ofner, Werner Rehm; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Wednesday 27 May 2020.

Systemsprenger (System Crasher, 2019)

Another film that was at last year’s London Film Festival is this drama about a young girl (not yet 10 years old) who’s had a troubled upbringing and lashes out at everyone around her. It’s about the limits of empathy within bureaucratic systems, despite the best attempts of people within those systems.


This is a tough film in some ways — after all, its protagonist Benni (Bernadette, though she hates that name, played brilliantly by Helena Zengel) starts off being a deeply unpleasant young girl, lashing out at everyone around her and getting into fights easily. She’s first seen in a hospital, covered in bruises, being monitored by doctors. However, over the course of the film we come to, if not always tolerate her, at least understand something of how she has grown the way she has, and the filmmaking is engrossing, wrapping you up in her world and those of the (often patient, sometimes very much not) carers around her. It becomes a film as much about how society is shaped in ways that don’t tolerate or accept non-conformist attitudes, about how difficult it is to find the resources to deal with those who won’t conform, and how bureaucratic systems just aren’t designed to keep up with real people and their problems at times. Of course, Benni is trouble but nobody really has the time or energy to look after her the way she wants and so she finds herself lashing out, in ways that would get her killed if she were older — and may yet get her killed, in the troublesome future which awaits her, a future that her most patient carer (Micha, played by Albrecht Schuch) lays out clearly for her. I suspect we all know kids a bit like Benni (albeit hopefully not quite as out of control); it’s a thin line between just being vocally unhappy sometimes, and being treated as problem that needs to be locked away, and though people try to help, the institutions that support them only seem to be geared towards incarceration, which leaves our “system crasher” with so few options despite her age not even being in double digits.

System Crasher film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nora Fingscheidt; Cinematographer Yunus Roy Imer; Starring Helena Zengel, Albrecht Schuch, Gabriela Maria Schmeide; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at home (Curzon Home Cinema streaming), London, Thursday 30 April 2020.

3 Tage in Quiberon (3 Days in Quiberon, 2018)

Biopics are often about famous men (and made by men too), but increasingly women’s stories have been brought to the screen, whether in big budget biopic dramas like Hidden Figures or in little indie chamber pieces like this one, which is about a film star towards the end of her career.


This is on the whole a pretty solid chamber drama (more-or-less) set at an upscale resort hotel in France in c1980, as Romy Schneider (Marie Bäumer) is rather unsuccessfully in detox, while a German journalist and photographer (Charly Hübner) comes to interview her, and her friend Hilde (Birgit Minichmayr) stops by to offer emotional support. Shot in crisp black-and-white, the performances are all very good, even if it does run a little long — there’s a lot of the interview in there, and we get a sense of the fragile state of Schneider’s psyche as she breaks down over the course of the drama. Hilde’s character is the least ostentatious, but Minichmayr has worked with Jessica Hausner and Maren Ade, so she knows how to hold the camera’s attention for even a repressed, very interior person. You can tell it’s set in the early-1980s because everyone smokes constantly, everywhere, in restaurants, bars, hotel rooms… just always lighting up. It’s not always obvious why this was made, but as a portrait of depression, and the bleak insularity of stardom, it feels compelling at times. Also, the (all too brief) Denis Lavant appearance is most welcome.

3 Days in Quiberon film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Emily Atef; Cinematographer Thomas W. Kiennast; Starring Marie Bäumer, Birgit Minichmayr, Charly Hübner; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 19 November 2018.

LFF 2019 Day Eleven: Star-Crossed Lovers (1962), Overseas, Scales and Relativity (all 2019)

My penultimate day at the London Film Festival started with a screentalk from Kasi Lemmons, director of Harriet (part of this year’s festival, though sadly a film I shan’t be seeing here, as it was a late addition), but also many other films I’ve loved over the years. Her five feature films were all covered, with clips provided, in an interview chaired by Gaylene Gould, and I’m reminded of how underrated and funny Talk to Me (2007) is, not to mention her seasonal musical drama Black Nativity (2013), though of course it’s Eve’s Bayou (1997) which received the most attention, and for good reason. Lemmons was voluble about her career, which stretches back to her early childhood as an actor, and is an inspiring figure in general, happy to speak to her many admirers after the screening. I did not ask a question, although I do wonder how the film will be received Stateside, given the recent prominent critiques of Black British actors playing iconic African-American figures. I certainly plan to see it though, and Cynthia Erivo has already shown in Widows that she’s a star in the making. Of the four films I saw, they span several countries, including two German films (one from the East in the 1960s, and the other a recent mystery thriller) both with slightly tricksy narrative structures), two black-and-white films (the East German one and a recent Saudi film directed by a woman in a magical realist style), and one documentary.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Eleven: Star-Crossed Lovers (1962), Overseas, Scales and Relativity (all 2019)”

Criterion Sunday 263: Fanny och Alexander [The Theatrical Version] (Fanny and Alexander, 1982)

Having seen this film for the first time a few weeks ago in its “TV Version”, I now watch the “Theatrical Version” — although the latter is really just the former cut in half (they’re both films) — and I have the sense of seeing some things for the first time. I suppose it’s just the necessarily more clipped way that things progress, but some of these moments just never really struck me so much when it played out in full. In either case, Bergman’s artistry as a filmmaker is fully evident, with long scenes filled with detail and artifice playing out almost effortlessly, though they must have taken a fair bit of staging and practice. However, the brevity brings its own rewards, and in some ways the little moments of the supernatural or hallucinatory — the way dead figures come to life in front of our young protagonists’ eyes, for example — seem to have more of a punch to them in the shortened version. In any case, this remains a film about Alexander primarily, a portrait of the artist as a young man if you will (for he is the Bergman stand-in). Every element is crafted with deep care, particularly the set design of the various family apartments and the austere parson’s lodgings. I had perhaps not expected to like this coming of age period costume drama as much as I did, but it’s a towering achievement.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a commentary on the film by Peter Cowie, but I’ve not listened to it yet.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Sven Nykvist; Starring Ewa Fröling, Jan Malmsjö, Allan Edwall, Bertil Guve, Erland Josephson, Jarl Kulle; Length 188 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 15 September 2019.