Day seven, aside from being my birthday, was a day of just two films, both of which were fairly decent as films go, if rather earnest, but both of which shone a light on their respective countries in quite revealing ways. Being directed by women, they had lessons particularly about the role and status of women in Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh.
Day six and another four film day. I’ve actually managed to stay awake for all 16 of the films I’ve seen so far, but this writing them up at the end of the evening is the worst part. Still, I must put my thoughts down or I’ll forget these films, so here are some more reviews. Today I’ve visited Japan, South Korea, Tunisia (again) and Georgia.
My first day of four films was day five of the festival, which I started with an archive screening of a new restoration of Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity, with an alternative ending sequence thrown in at the end (wisely ditched from the original film in my opinion), then a new British film introduced by its director, a Tunisian-French co-production with a star more familiar with French cinema, and finally the last screening of Rose Plays Julie, part of the official competition, and a striking Irish film which bristles with technical sophistication.
Day four of the London Film Festival is the first weekend, and so the first day on which I have bought myself tickets to more than two films — only three, mind, and with fairly generous spacing, so there’s no running from screen to screen today. Two of them are in Spanish (one is Catalan although mostly in Castilian, the other Uruguyuan) and two are coming of age stories (The Sharks and The Orphanage). Oh, and all three are directed by women of course.
Day three of the #LFF brings two films from the ‘Laugh’ strand of the programme, one each from South Korea and Morocco, which go about their comedy beats in different ways, but both raise wry smiles and a few laugh-out-loud moments.
With this review, I’m returning to two theme weeks, primarily my one focusing on Arab cinema, because this is a documentary filmed in Syria during its (ongoing) Civil War. However, it’s also partly a recent British film directed by a woman, due to its funding and Al-Kateab’s work for British news media. It’s certainly a striking and urgent piece of filmmaking.
There have been a number of documentaries in recent years about refugees, especially as these have impacted Europe, but relatively few films about where these refugees come from (though The Day I Lost My Shadow springs to mind). I imagine this is largely because there hasn’t been persuasive footage of the situations in the kinds of poor, war-stricken countries that generate so many refugees — and documentaries thrive on nothing so much as imagery — but this film has plenty of that. It’s a first-person narration dedicated to the filmmaker’s newborn daughter, born to shelling and constant blood and destruction in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, where her husband (Sama’s father) is one of the city’s leading doctors, mainly because he’s one of the few still there helping to run a hospital. It’s not, needless to say, a happy scene and you may be fairly warned that there is a significant amount of footage of dead and dying people, and particularly children — because Assad’s civil war, backed by the Russian planes we see involved in bombing runs, is not one without a lot of human casualty. Amongst the carnage there are these little stories of hope, a baby cut from his mother who miraculously survives, or indeed the story of the title character, young Sama — and one gets the sense that without stories such as these, the misery and death would probably be unbearable. It’s all very heartfelt stuff, and wrenching too.
Directors Waad Al-Kateab وعد الخطيب and Edward Watts; Cinematographer Al-Kateab; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Tuesday 17 September 2019.
Mauritanian filmmaker Med Hondo’s Soleil Ô (1967) received a recent restoration courtesy of Il Cinema Ritrovato and Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. Another film of his (not yet restored) screened in this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato and exemplifies a more confrontational attitude towards the colonialist past and the challenges of filmmaking on the continent.
With an undoubtedly confrontational title (there are several English renditions of it, but I’m not going to provide any of them here), this politically-engaged piece of post-68 anti-colonialist filmmaking from Med Hondo is very much interested in confronting a legacy of colonialism in Africa. After all, it starts with a lengthy address direct to camera on the necessity of finding a means for an African cinema freed from the demands of Western capital and cultural production. There follow a series of illustrative scenes that unveil the corruption wrought by capital, the methods of control exercised by the colonialist oppressors, a folky anti-racist song about one’s Black and Arab neighbours (which is, more or less, the meaning of the film’s title), a bit of Gilliamesque animation, dialogues with workers about socialism, a sequence highlighting the racism ingrained even in sex work, and some earnest lectures, complete with charts and graphics, on the economics of exploitation. It ends with a group of people in a room festooned with the posters of the kinds of African films that presumably Med Hondo would highlight as exemplars (including his own, even a poster for the one we’re watching), and now I want to see all of them. This isn’t always an easy watch — it’s hardly intended to be (and indeed there’s a longer three-hour cut apparently) — but it comes directly from a spirit of the times, recalling contemporary works like Argentina’s La hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1968).
Director/Writer Med Hondo ميد هوندو; Cinematographers Jean Boffety and François Catonné; Length 100 minutes [French version].
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Monday 24 June 2019.
I’ve already covered the Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir in a separate feature, but another critically-acclaimed filmmaker from the region (albeit one who has grown up and been educated in the Netherlands) has been Hany Abu-Assad, whose 2005 film Paradise Now put him on the map. He has most recently moved rather surprisingly into the big-budget Hollywood realm with the Idris Elba/Kate Winslet drama The Mountain Between Us (2017)
I didn’t expect to very much more than merely admire this film, given its Academy Awards nomination and fairly dour subject matter — it’s about a group of Palestinian friends whose lives and relationships are pulled apart in fighting against the Israeli occupation. But as so often I was wrong, because it’s not just a well-crafted film (that much is evident from the very start, with precise framing and careful editing) but also a tense thriller, well-mounted and with plenty of twists and turns, not unlike the narrow streets we see our titular protagonist (Adam Bakri) running through. The cinematography in particular is unshowily excellent: dominated by frontal faces in clean, uncluttered frames.
Director/Writer Hany Abu-Assad هاني أبو أسعد; Cinematographer Ehab Assal إيهاب عسل; Starring Adam Bakri آدم بكري, Leem Lubany ليم لوباني; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 15 March 2017.
I’ve now had a week of Arabic language cinema, with several examples from the small country of Lebanon, where director Nadine Labaki has made a number of films to increasing critical notice starting with the likeable Caramel (2007). Now her latest film Capernaum (referencing ancient Palestine in the Bible, but focusing on Syrian refugees) is apparently the highest-grossing Middle Eastern film ever, so I could hardly omit it this week. I visited the country in 2017 and found it to be both beautiful and also enormously varied, with many different people living in close quarters, not least the huge number of Syrian refugees whom you can’t help but see everywhere (whether the refugee camps dotted across the valleys, or the homeless beggars on the streets of Beirut). When it came out, I remember reading some savagely negative reviews of the film, but equally I’ve seen a lot of praise, so I feel conflicted, and can understand the arguments on both sides.
I don’t exactly know how to feel about this film, though I know exactly how the director wants me to think, because it’s not exactly subtle. That said, perhaps there’s a case that subtlety is beside the point when you’re looking at the state of being a refugee (or the children of one), about being dehumanised by government decrees and forced into ghettoes, separated from parents with no legal recourse, having almost no opportunities and thus a ripe target for exploitation: perhaps that’s the kind of attitude that history has already taught us leads to the greatest horrors, and whatever creative strategy can be deployed should be applauded.
I don’t know this kind of life, of course, but this film seems to delight in presenting the most abject and dehumanising experiences and serving it up for our entertainment. I hope it changes minds and policies, because it must have been difficult to repeatedly force children to act through what’s shown here, even if it reflects something of some of their real lives. There are compensations: the central performance of young Zaid (Zaid Al Rafeea) is excellent, not precocious or cute, but just the right level of gritty determination butting up against the reality of what he can possibly hope to achieve as such a young person, not to mention the Ethiopian woman who plays Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who is also brilliant. But the picaresque narrative as Zaid bounces around various inadequate situations is constantly interrupted by a court case in which the kid is suing his parents for being born, which feels like a very self-consciously filmic framing device rather than something from lived experience, more like a crutch for the plot.
For all this, I admire much of the filmmaking craft, even if I feel conflicted about the way it’s used. Perhaps I’m being unfair: this is undoubtedly an angry film about a topic (children in peril) that inspires righteous fury, as it does in me when I think about it, about the plight of so many young people in such a small and under-equipped country as Lebanon, and about the dangerous futures for them, for their (new) country, for the region. I just didn’t always feel like this film was the best way of presenting it, and I felt somewhat similarly about, for example, Dheepan, but then again I’ve also just had a quick look at other online responses and I see a lot of love (and also a lot of defensive reactions against opinions apparently not a million miles from my own), so I’m willing to concede I’m misjudging it.
Director Nadine Labaki نادين لبكي; Writers Labaki, Jihad Hojaily جهاد حجيلي and Michelle Keserwany ميشيل كيسرواني; Cinematographer Christopher Aoun; Starring Zain Al Rafeea زين الرافعي, Yordanos Shiferaw يوردانوس شيفراو; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 24 February 2019.
With the rather slender excuse that there’s a documentary about Gaza out in British cinemas today, I’ve been doing a week of Arabic language cinema over here on this blog, for which I’ve featured films from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt (both old and new), Palestine and Lebanon. I always focus on a new release on Friday, so I’m featuring this film which screened at last year’s London Film Festival. Syria is a country with a long, rich history, which these days is far more often the focus of news reporting thanks to its Civil War that has raged for the past decade. The condition of life in that country is still only a small subject in cinema, which is why accounts such as that of the French-born Syrian director Soudade Kaadan are so welcome.
There’s a magical realist element to this tale of ordinary survival during wartime in Syria — that’s what the title is referring to, the way that people’s shadows just disappear at times of crisis. It’s an attempt by the director to metaphorically grapple with concepts that are perhaps too big to really convey on film — the enormous stresses that wars can inflict on a civilian population (and somewhat recalling the recent Iranian-British film Under the Shadow). That said, I think that was probably the element that worked least well for me in what is otherwise a very capably-crafted tale of quotidian struggle, as Sana (Sawsan Arsheed), a woman looking for gas to cook food for her young son, finds herself bundled up in a car with some others in the same situation, which then ends up hurtling through armed checkpoints into the countryside, whence she must make the trip back to the city.
It’s these small details of keeping a life going when bombs and guns are going off around you — looking for gas and food, hoping the water stays on long enough to wash your clothes, and the desperation just these simple things provoke — that are most effective in conveying the situation. The quest narrative added on top of that makes literal the long trudging journeys that scarcity requires, giving a sense of what every day must be like. And so the disappearing shadows are just an extra element, though they give a sense of poetry and mystery to what is, sadly, a very unpoetic life.
Director/Writer Soudade Kaadan سؤدد كعدان; Cinematographer Éric Devin; Starring Sawsan Arsheed سوسن أرشيد, Reham Al Kassar ريهام الكسار, Samer Ismael سامر إسماعيل; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Monday 15 October 2018.