Global Cinema 29: Cambodia – First They Killed My Father (2017)

My trek around the globe now takes me to Cambodia (also known as Kampuchea), where a lot of the films which have made it to Western audiences focus on the turbulent era under Pol Pot in the 1970s. Prestige Hollywood dramas of the 1980s like The Killing Fields still define the Western understanding of the country, deepened somewhat by the films of newer auteurs like Rithy Panh. Angelina Jolie follows in this tradition with her 2017 Netflix feature film, though it certainly does showcase the country beautifully, despite the harrowing content.


Cambodian flagKingdom of Cambodia (កម្ពុជា Kămpŭchéa)
population 15,552,000 | capital Phnom Penh (2.3m) | largest cities Phnom Penh, Siem Reap (245k), Battambang (119k), Sisophon (99k), Poipet (99k) | area 181,035 km2 | religion Buddhism (97%) | official language Khmer (ភាសាខ្មែរ) | major ethnicity Khmer (97%) | currency Riel (៛) [KHR] | internet .kh

A country in the south of the Indochinese peninsula, whose name comes via French, though the Khmer name comes from Sanskrit for “country of Kamboja”, alluding to the country’s foundation myths. Evidence suggests settlement as far back as 6000 BCE, with Iron Age cultures by the 6th century BCE. The Khmer Empire grew from Indian influenced states of Funan and Chenla, established by the 9th century CE and the largest in SE Asia by the 12th century, with its capital at Angkor, the largest pre-industrial city in the world. It remained a force until the 15th century, but power in the region became divided between Siam (Thailand) and Vietnam. In the 19th century it became a protectorate of France, part of French Indochina (and briefly controlled by Japan during WW2), but the French failed to control the monarchy and it gained independence on 9 November 1953. Tension with Vietnam over control of the Mekong Delta led to Vietnam’s invasion and subsequent conflict and a coup hastened a civil war, in which the Cambodian communists (known as the Khmer Rouge) gained the upper edge, despite aggressive US bombing. Under Pol Pot, the KR modelled itself on Maoist China and led to the death of several million people, eventually toppled by a Vietnamese invasion, though formal peace didn’t come until 1991, and the monarchy was restored in 1993. There is now a constitutional monarchy, with a PM appointed by the king on the advice of an elected assembly.

Cinema didn’t begin until the 1950s, encouraged by King Sihanouk, with many films made and screened during the 1960s, until the rise of the Khmer Rouge when it virtually ceased (aside from a few propaganda films). The industry has only slowly recovered, with notable figures including the French-trained Rithy Panh, whose films focus on the KR era (and who produced the film below). Recent years have seen a rise in horror cinema, though overall the industry has stagnated and only 11 cinemas remained by 2011.


មុនដំបូងខ្មែរក្រហមសម្លាប់ប៉ារបស់ខ្ញុំ Moun dambaung Khmer Krahm samleab ba robsa khnhom (First They Killed My Father, 2017)

This is undoubtedly a very polished and well-made film. Angelina Jolie has made a number of films over the past decade or so, and has made a habit of telling less commercial stories, which I very much respect (though her masterpiece so far is By the Sea, a weird French riviera-set twisted love story starring her and Brad Pitt). This film about a young girl during the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia cleaves very closely to the girl’s point of view, including a lot of the camerawork being distinctly low angle and close to the ground. This has the benefit of avoiding the need to contextualise everything, because she herself has an imperfect understanding of the situation, but that’s also to the viewer’s detriment, because it’s unclear what exactly the issues are. Still, the young girl is a very fine actor, called on to walk through all this horrendous suffering, a witness to her country pulling itself apart — albeit somewhat prompted by the extensive covert US bombing during the Vietnam War. It manages to give a lush sense of Cambodia’s countryside at the same time as hinting at the horrors which its people endured. It may not quite reach the same heights as its producer Rithy Panh’s own films, but it’s a commendable effort all the same.

First They Killed My Father film posterCREDITS
Director Angelina Jolie; Writers Loung Ung អ៊ឹង លឿង and Jolie (based on Ung’s non-fiction book); Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle; Starring Sreymoch Sareum, Kompheak Phoeung, Socheta Sveng; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Thursday 4 March 2021.

Global Cinema 21: Bolivia – When the Bull Cried (2017)

It should be clear by now that I don’t choose what I consider the most representative or famous titles from their country. Partly, it’s about what is easily available for me to watch, but I also seek out films directed by women and people of colour. There isn’t a huge amount of Bolivian cinema, but almost certainly there are better known titles than this Belgian-Bolivian co-production documentary, though I feel it certainly captures something specific about Bolivian life, at least in the mountainous mining communities.


Bolivian flagPlurinational State of Bolivia
population 11,428,000 | capital Sucre (259k) [constitutional/judicial], La Paz (765k) [executive/legislative] | largest cities Santa Cruz de la Sierra (1.5m), El Alto (849k), La Paz, Cochabamba (631k), Oruro (265k) | area 1,098,581 km2 | religion Roman Catholicism (70%), Protestantism (17%) | official language Spanish (Español boliviano), Aymara, Quechua (Runasimi), Guarani and many others | major ethnicity Mestizo (68%), native Bolivian (20%) | currency Boliviano (Bs) [BOB] | internet .bo

A landlocked South American country, with two capital cities (though the seat of government is located in La Paz), neither of which is the largest. It ranges from peaks in the west to eastern lowlands within the Amazon Basin. The name comes from Simón Bolívar and the country originally called the Republic of Bolívar; the modern name was adopted in 1825. The country was first occupied several millennia BCE, before the Aymara arrived. It wasn’t until the first millennium CE that the population cohered into cities, and it became a regional power as the Tiwanaku (or Tiahuanaco) empire. This empire crumbled due to a lack of food production, and by the mid-2nd millennium the Incan empire moved in. Spanish conquest began in 1524 and didn’t take long to complete, after which point the colonial power exploited silver via mining (tin took greater importance by the 20th century), though the brutal slave conditions led to an indigenous uprising, which coalesced into a struggle for independence in the early 19th century. Marshal Sucre led a military campaign that resulted in the Republic being declared in 1825. A number of wars took place between neighbouring powers on the continent for the ensuing few decades, and the country successively lost a lot of territory, including access to the sea. Periods of military dictatorship ceded to democracy in the 1990s, though there has been further instability since then. There is an elected President.

Bolivia has produced feature films since the 1920s, many of which have been documentaries. There was a New Bolivian Cinema in the 1960s, in parallel to Brazil and Argentina’s movements the same decade, and social realism continues to be a feature of modern, digital filmmaking practice.


Cuando el toro lloró (When the Bull Cried, 2017)

The title suggests something a little bit poetic about life in the Bolivian mountains amongst a small mining village. The film is dominated by images of rocks being cracked open by elderly women looking for tin, and of men going down into the miasma of the mountain, some of whom don’t return, as the women regretfully note. The traditions and customs are seen, protection sought for the dangerous work many in the community do, and the film ends with a gory animal sacrifice, the pulsating heart seen burning on a flame being despatched to El Tio, the deity worshipped around these parts. It’s an evocative film, albeit a slight one, running at just over an hour.

When the Bull Cried film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Karen Vazquez Guadarrama and Bart Goossens; Cinematographer Guadarrama; Length 67 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Thursday 1 October 2020.

Global Cinema 18: Belize – Yochi (2017)

The problem with the challenge to watch a film from every country around the world is that there are all too many that basically have next to no film industry or even film production, and Belize is certainly one of those countries with a very short list of films. I might have chosen a Hollywood production set there, like The Mosquito Coast, but this short film popped up on a YouTube search, and it was made in Belize for the country, ostensibly to showcase a problem with poaching native birds.


Belizean flagBelize
population 408,000 | capital Belmopan (14k) | largest cities Belize City (57k), San Ignacio (18k), Belmopan, Orange Walk Town (13.7k), San Pedro Town (12k) | area 22,966 km2 | religion Christianity (74%) | official language English | major ethnicity Mestizo (53%), Creole (26%), Maya (11%) | currency Belize dollar ($) [BZD] | internet .bz

A small Central American country bordering the Caribbean Sea, Mexico and Guatemala, with the lowest population density in the region. The earliest reference to the name is in the late-17th century, in relation to the river, and is possibly derived from the Mayan belix meaning “muddy-watered”. It was one of the areas where the Mayan civilisation first emerged in the 3rd millennium BCE, which continued through to the arrival of Spanish explorers in the 16th century CE, though despite Spanish claims over the territory, it was the British who first settled the country in the 18th century. After repelling Spanish attacks, it was integrated into the British Empire as British Honduras. Self-government was granted in 1964, and the country renamed as Belize in 1973. Full independence was granted on 21 September 1981. The head of state remains the British monarch, with an elected parliament led by a Prime Minister.

Although music and even theatre are part of the cultural life of Belize, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of a local film industry, so very few films have been produced there.


Yochi (2017)

This short film has clearly been made with an interest in drawing attention to the illegal trade in exotic birds, specifically the yellow-headed parrot found in Belize. However, it’s also a story — and at 25 minutes it can’t really be more than a fairly simple one — about two indigenous brothers. The younger brother lives at home and doesn’t speak, while his older brother comes to visit from the city, slipping easily between the local Mayan language and English, as he disburses electronic gifts to mother and brother. So there are a few tensions in play — not speaking vs saying too much, city vs nature, the corruption of money (the brother, it turns out, is loaded down with debt) — and the film has resolutions to these, but even if it’s not surprising, it is very nice to see the lush jungles of Belize, its wildlife, and get a sense of life for some communities there. Plus, if like me you’re trying to watch films from countries around the world, there’s not much for Belize.

Yochi film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ilana Lapid; Cinematographer Robert Dugan; Starring Kerry Johan Landero, Evan Martinez; Length 25 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Tuesday 18 August 2020.

Global Cinema 15: Barbados – A Caribbean Dream (2017)

There haven’t exactly been a huge number of Barbadian films, and it’s that country’s musical creators who have achieved rather more notable international success. So it’s a little unfair that I’m focusing on a film which I didn’t love, but it has enough in it to make it worthwhile watching, and it’s certainly one of the very few that have had a cinematic release.


Barbadian flagBarbados
population 287,000 | capital Bridgetown (110k) | largest cities Bridgetown, Speightstown (3.6k), Oistins (2.3k), Holetown (1.6k), Bathsheba (1.5k) | area 439 km2 | religion Christianity (76%), none (21%) | official language English (but Bajan Creole is also recognised) | major ethnicity Afro-Barbadian (91%), White Barbadian (4%) | currency Barbadian Dollar ($) [BBD] | internet .bb

A Caribbean island nation located in the Lesser Antilles. The name comes from the Portuguese or Spanish (l)os barbudos (meaning “bearded ones”), colloquially called “Bim”, but before Columbian times it was called Ichirouganaim. The earliest settlements are dated to c1600 BCE, with more permanent ones by Amerindians (arriving from South America) from the 4th century CE, the Arawaks at first and then the Kalinago from the 13th century. Europeans arrived by the early-16th century and largely ignored the island until the English arrived in 1625. A lot of these arrivals were indentured labourers or transported convicts, including many from Ireland. Sugar became a major crop from the mid-17th century and a number of slave rebellions took place. Reforms took place in the 20th century, leading to internal self-government in 1961 and independence on 30 November 1966. The British monarch was retained as head of state, with an elected Prime Minister.

Although there are some cinemas in Barbados, there is little to no local feature film production, as far as I can tell.


A Caribbean Dream (2017)

There’s little enough reason for me to be mean about this film, given it’s unlikely to reach a wide audience. As a Barbados-set and filmed version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream it’s every bit as fantastical and silly as its source, and while the acting can be of variable quality, it’s more than made up for by the enthusiasm of its cast and their gameness to play with various configurations of racial and gender identity with relative ease and fluidity. There’s a sense you get that it could have been tightened up in the editing, but I’m glad it exists.

[NB The film’s date is sometimes given as 2016, but I’m not clear if it did first screen in that year.]

A Caribbean Dream film posterCREDITS
Director Shakirah Bourne; Writers Bourne and Melissa Simmonds (based on the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare); Cinematographer Robin Whenary; Starring Aden Gillett, Sonia Williams, Adrian Greene, Susannah Harker, Lorna Gayle; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Rio, London, Sunday 12 November 2017.

Okja (2017)

Okay for my science-fiction week I’m going to have concede the ‘foreign-language’ aspect is really that most of them are from non-English-speaking directors or produced in other countries, because this is largely an American production, albeit by the noted Korean director Bong Joon-ho (whose rather more famous recent film Parasite will eventually come up in my Criterion Sunday series).


Tonally, this film is very odd. There’s an almost childlike sentimentality around animals and farming, which is altogether too clean (the genetically mutated pig-like creature at the film’s heart never seems to be caked in sh!t like real pigs usually are). And then there’s the corporate satire, all gurning faces and ridiculous over-the-top performances by Jake Gyllenhaal as a TV scientist and Tilda Swinton as the evil company CEO, going several steps beyond Gilliam to full comic book. Indeed, I’d say this is the closest film has got to capturing the feeling of one of Roald Dahl’s children’s books, although by virtue of visually depicting the nasty stuff adults get up to, its 15 classification puts it rather beyond children. It heartens me to see this much mainstream attention paid to the way animals are treated by the meat industry, though this is hardly vegetarian propaganda. And if ultimately it’s an emotional story about a country girl and her animal best friend, it’s an affecting and effective one with some excellent CGI.

Okja film posterCREDITS
Director Bong Joon-ho 봉준호; Writers Bong and Jon Ronson; Cinematographer Darius Khondji داریوش خنجی‎; Starring Ahn Seo-hyun, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Byun Hee-bong, Steven Yeun; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 10 July 2017.

Drift (2017)

Rounding out my week of German-language women’s cinema is this slow cinema piece that barely features any language at all, often preferring the movement of water in the ocean to its human protagonists. It’s not perhaps going to be to all tastes, but it’s very much to mine!


I love a bit of slow cinema, but it’s no simple matter making a good work in this style; it’s not just a matter of pointing a camera at a swelling ocean and letting it roll, even though there are periods throughout this film where that feels like all there is — and certainly people reviewing this film who could not be more bored it seems (though I’m surprised they even watched it in the first place). The sequence of shots of ocean swells — roiling, calm, sun-dappled, moonlit, and all variations in between — that takes place for a significant stretch of the film feels a little like a minimalist film by someone like James Benning (though the final sequence rather more directly recalls Michael Snow), but it has its own sense of poetry. The sounds overlaid (of water obviously) create a beautiful, almost hallucinatory, series of shots in which I myself drifted off at times, but of which I can recall the various textures of the water, the sunlight catching corners of the waves and glinting out flashes of blinding light while on the soundtrack what sounded like water running down a drain as a wood fire burned nearby (it was all rather impressionistic, but that was what I heard), or at another time the bright glare of moonlight in the sky casting a faint trail of light across the waves. This, however, is a sequence that links two sections of the film with human protagonists, who themselves are connected somewhat yet find themselves drifting apart. There are a lot of exquisitely framed and lit shots of quiet (or disquiet perhaps), and a tangible sense of a spiritual movement. Obviously it’s not to all tastes, but those who like this kind of thing will love it.

Drift film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Helena Wittmann; Starring Theresa George, Josefina Gill; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 2 May 2019.

Films by Valeska Grisebach: Be My Star (2001), Longing (2006) and Western (2017)

She’s only made three feature films, but on the basis of just that work Valeska Grisebach is one of the most interesting German-language filmmakers of the last few decades. She was trained at the Vienna Film School, though she isn’t Austrian (she was born in Bremen), and is often included in the so-called ‘Berlin School’ with Angela Schanelec (whom I’ll cover later this week), Christian Petzold and others. She makes unglamorous films with non-professional actors that often resist the more florid aspects of storytelling, not a million miles from say Kelly Reichardt or Claire Denis. This perhaps accounts for why she’s been able to make so few, but those she has made are all excellent and well worth checking out (though her graduate film, Be My Star, is somewhat rougher aesthetically).

Continue reading “Films by Valeska Grisebach: Be My Star (2001), Longing (2006) and Western (2017)”

करीब करीब सिंगल Qarib Qarib Singlle (2017)

It’s impossible to cover Indian cinema without at least a few feel-good Bollywood films. This one, directed by Tanuja Chandra — who has had a fairly long career for a woman directing in India (since 1998), though she has family connections to the business — is a likeable romcom with two big name leads. Irrfan Khan, who sadly died recently, is probably the best-known in the West.


I enjoy a good romcom, but they do tend to lean heavily on the personal charm of their leads. Luckily both Irrfan Khan and Parvathy Thiruvothu have that, although Irrfan’s character of Yogi, a wealthy layabout who writes self-published poetry does initially come across as less quirky than creepy in his insistence. Then again, romcoms do often normalise pathological behaviour, and his is comparatively tame by the genre’s standards. Needless to say, some feeling develops between the two as they criss-cross India (mostly in the north I believe, though I’m hardly a geographic expert). The director encourages her heroine to break the fourth wall by addressing the camera directly in what is now I suppose a time-honoured tradition, but it all comes off rather nicely and this is a very likeable film.

Qarib Qarib Singlle film posterCREDITS
Director Tanuja Chandra तनुजा चंद्रा; Writers Chandra, Gazal Dhaliwal ਗਜ਼ਲ ਧਾਲੀਵਾਲ and Ramashrit Joshi; Cinematographer Eeshit Narain; Starring Irrfan Khan इरफ़ान ख़ान, Parvathy Thiruvothu പാർവ്വതി ടി.കെ.; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Ilford, London, Friday 17 November 2017.

A Suitable Girl (2017)

In looking at Indian cinema and society, a number of topics come up quite frequently, particularly that of arranged marriage, which can certainly seem problematic but is also an ingrained part of society and not always quite how Western audiences want to judge it. This documentary is fairly balanced in the way it approaches the subject, taking in three different subjects, at different stages in their path to marriage.


As a documentary about marriage, and thus about women’s lives, in India, this comes across as the cinematic equivalent of a long sigh. It’s not an angry film, it’s not even necessarily against the practice of arranged marriage, it just looks at the stories of three women and the way they feel about marriage and how they expect to continue their lives. All three are intelligent, motivated, and pretty, but each have different difficulties. One is marrying, which happens near the start of the film, meaning we then see how that plays out for her (cooking, domesticity, raising a child but not ‘allowed’ to work); the others are trying to make a path for themselves, and thus get married towards the end of the film. There’s a sense in which the music for those climactic marriage scenes is a little too overdetermined (it comes over like a feel-good commercial) when the rest of the film makes it clear that they have all made sacrifices and compromises. One of them isn’t willing to sacrifice her work and so she marries a man who is pretty blasé about the whole concept, basically admitting he’s just going through with it for his family, and though they seem happy together, it’s all very odd at times. Which means, as a film about the practice of Indian marriages, it’s interesting and fairly balanced.

A Suitable Girl film posterCREDITS
Directors Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra; Writers Khurana, Mundhra and Jennifer Tiexiera; Cinematographers Naiti Gámez, Shivani Khattar and André de Alencar Lyon; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Friday 2 March 2018.

Orione (2017)

Moving to a rather more obscure Argentine film, a first feature by a young director, which is a documentary but a rather experimental one in form, dealing with the idea of a life and interrogating some of the ways that this person’s life is framed by different voices and authorities.


A strange open-ended documentary about a young man who was shot by the police in a poor suburb of Buenos Aires, this marshals an array of footage — interviews with the mother, police dashboard cameras, dead bodies in a morgue, TV, home video — to present the sense of a place and the idea of a life. The dead young man was a criminal, but he was also his mother’s son, the father to his own child, and a person who had dreams and an upbringing, and part of what the documentary does is just to expand the range of the usual crime procedural documentary to be more about the victim’s entire life, about his surroundings and how he came to be. The interview with the mother is in voiceover as she makes an elaborate birthday cake, again framing the sound of witnesses with the ongoing events of lived experience, and that’s what I take from this film.

Orione film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Toia Bonino; Length 65 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 25 November 2018.