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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Toia Bonino; Length 65 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 25 November 2018.
I suppose this kind of milieu, the inner-city school, isn’t particularly uncommon, nor even focusing on athletic achievements in that venue (The Fits, although a fiction drama, isn’t so removed from this). And indeed there’s a whole (and great, in my opinion) franchise of films dedicated to this dance style, Step Up. Still, it’s nice to see the dance form tied to a story that’s grounded in a sociopolitical context, and though it’s always worth being attentive to the means of production (the film crew appear to be largely white), I think the resulting film avoids exploitation and is empathetic towards its subjects.
See, I get the reviews calling this film uplifting or inspirational, because that vibe definitely exists here, at least in part. But it’s set in a Black girls’ school in Baltimore, and the context — as we’ve seen only too often, and recently as well — is tough for them. That much the documentary makes clear at the outset. Still, this is about three young women who each approach their goal of getting into college via different means, but all of whom are into step dance. Those sequences could be better filmed (choppy editing and close-ups are all too common in dance films and really don’t help viewers appreciate it), but the pathos is all there, and by the end I think the film really allows for some empathy with its stars. Well, I shed a few tears.
Director Amanda Lipitz; Cinematographer Casey Regan; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Sunday 13 August 2017.
A documentary which won the Illuminate Award at the 2017 Sheffield Doc/Fest is this one, dealing with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a still misunderstood and under-researched ailment suffered by a large number of people. It’s one of a range of documentaries which are dedicated to publicising situations which don’t get much media attention, in the hope of effecting some meaningful change.
A moving and quite effective documentary about ME (also known as “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome”). If nothing else, the filmmaker — Jennifer Brea, also the primary subject of the documentary and someone who lives with this — makes it clear how little understood the disease is (partly a lack of understanding and funding by those who have the money and power to effect proper research), and how much scepticism about it remains within society. She also is very clear about how debilitating it can be, and while she herself is sometimes mobile, she interviews a range of people at various places in the spectrum, including a bedridden young woman in England and a man in the States who is almost completely immobile and silent, and (it turns out) the son of a leading researcher in the field, whose desperation to find sources for funding turns out to have quite a personal impetus. For this kind of personal documentary, it’s quite well-made and presents a clear case for further understanding and empathy with those who deal with it — which is, it turns out, a surprisingly large number of people.
Director Jennifer Brea; Writers Brea and Kim Roberts; Cinematographers Sam Heesen and Christian Laursen; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Monday 6 November 2017.
Following this morning’s review of Even When I Fall, my mini-theme today (within my Sheffield Doc/Fest week) is documentaries that take us to different parts of the world. Although this is of course something that a lot of documentaries do, finding a subject that hasn’t been covered can sometimes be difficult, but it’s fair to say there aren’t many documentaries out there about women’s vocational training centres in Burkina Faso, so it’s great to see inside this one.
The film takes the familiar route of following a small number of people amongst those studying at this Ouagadougou auto mechanics training centre, women who are taking car bodywork lessons to go to work for garages in what is repeatedly referred to as ‘men’s work’. The personalities of the various women all come out slowly, not least because at school they are all largely respectful and quiet (perhaps the situation, or maybe it’s the presence of the camera), but there are some strong words about the importance of this education to them. The film is also made with a fair bit of style of its own, carefully edited and framed well, especially in the introductions near the start. On the whole, it’s a likeable and interesting film about women in an unlikely place.
Director Theresa Traoré Dahlberg; Cinematographer Iga Mikler; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Friday 20 October 2017.
One of the major reasons I like to watch documentaries is that they bring me stories from all parts of the world, from all walks of life, and from the perspectives of people whose lives and experiences I will never share and could often never be part of. This film is directed by two British women (from an anthropology background, I gather), but is filmed in Nepal, touching on child trafficking and exploitation but in a way that really benefits from the time the filmmakers spent with their subjects. It’s a real problem with documentaries that the best ones require a huge amount of time and patience to make, whereas ones which are dashed off quickly tend to be insubstantial and misleading. This film is produced by Elhum Shakerifar (Hakawati Films), who has also produced the excellent Of Love & Law and A Syrian Love Story amongst others, and programmes Middle Eastern and North African films at the London Film Festival (quite often providing some of my favourite film experiences at the LFF each year).
Seeing a synopsis of this documentary, I was not expecting very much, but in blending an account of human trafficking of children from poor, rural areas of Nepal into travelling circuses in India, with the story of their rescue and rehabilitation into their own native circus based in Kathmandu, the film ends up being rather lovely. It’s certainly not a combination that one might expect to pay off: earnest accounts of the wonder of the circus arts hardly make for a natural bedfellow with harrowing accounts of what is essentially slavery, you would think. However, there’s an assuredness to the direction and photography that is aided by, as ever, charismatic and watchable lead characters, most notably two women who have grown up in these circuses, and have found a new sense of direction once reunited with their families. Of course, there are difficult questions — most notably, why their parents sold them in the first place — but the women are all united in trying to ensure that this practice does not continue, as well as fighting against the prejudices people have against circus performers (which seem to roughly align with what 19th century Victorians thought about actors).
Directors Kate McLarnon and Sky Neal; Cinematographer Ben Marshall; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Monday 16 April 2018.
Plenty of documentaries, especially recently, have explored all kinds of facets of lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer identities, in various areas of life. Documentaries can often bring wider recognition to people and causes which aren’t very familiar to a mainstream audience. One recent film that shines a light on a Latin American performer is Chavela, which screened at the 2017 Sheffield Doc/Fest.
There are documentaries that break moulds and innovate the form, and then there are ones which may take a venerable approach (talking head interviews, archival footage, historical research) but do so in the service of presenting a fascinating and little told story. This is surely one of the latter, and for someone not brought up in the hispanophone world I was entirely unaware of Chavela Vargas, a Costa Rica-born Mexican singer who achieved great fame in both Mexico and Spain for her heartfelt and passionate singing, not to mention her outspoken lesbian identity at a time when (and in a place where) that was much frowned upon. It’s wonderful to both hear from those who knew her, loved her or worked with her, and to see the footage of her performing in the final act of her career which ran from the early-90s to her death in 2012, as she took to the stage again in her seventies and kept performing, unable ever to fully retire.
Directors Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi; Cinematographers Natalia Cuevas, Gund and Paula Gutiérrez Orio; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Thursday 26 July 2018.
One filmmaker who has consistently engaged with (usually revolutionary) history is the Haitian Raoul Peck. Many of his films deal with the turbulent times of his home country, a country which has suffered no small amount of turbulence over the last fifty years, as testified by the five-film French DVD box set of his Haitian films (one of which is The Man by the Shore reviewed below). Elsewhere he has turned his attention to thinkers like the American James Baldwin (in the documentary I Am Not Your Negro), to leader Patrice Lumumba (of what was then called the Republic of the Congo, later Zaire and now the DRC, subject of a 1992 documentary as well as the biopic below), and of course to a formative period in the life of Karl Marx.
Continue reading “Three Historical Dramas by Raoul Peck: The Man by the Shore (1993), Lumumba (2000) and The Young Karl Marx (2017)”
Having mentioned there are few women directors in Thai cinema in my recent review of The Island Funeral, it’s good to see a new contingent of Thai women’s voices, not least Anocha Suwichakornpong, whose newest film (co-directed with the British director Ben Rivers) Krabi, 2562 is out on home streaming (via Mubi) today in the UK. Another recent Thai woman making films is transgender director Anucha Boonyawatana, who has made a number of films, and her most recent film is on BFI Player, though I saw it at the BFI Flare film festival a couple of years ago.
It’s very hard to watch this film and not think of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s mysterious films set in similar lush jungle landscapes, but what’s great about contemporary SE Asian cinema is there are other directors I can call to mind too who are doing similar things, women like Anocha Suwichakornpong or Lao director Mattie Do. What’s striking in all these films, aside from the setting, is the atmosphere and pacing. There are long, quiet stretches which would be ponderous if they weren’t so heavy with feeling between the two lead characters (Sukollawat Kanarot and Anuchit Sapanphong). There are scenes set in a crepuscular half-darkness such that the light glancing off one man’s facial features can easily be imagined as a craggy landscape when you are struggling to stay awake in a warm cinema when you’ve had a few drinks first (that’s on me, not the film), but I prefer to think of that as an oneiric cinematic effect. It’s a film that’s about a relationship between two men on the one hand, but also about the relationship between life and death, specifically refracted through a Buddhist consciousness. The temporality of life is symbolised by the threading together of elaborate jasmine flower arrangements (the malila of the title) which start to wither even as they are created, but it is also literalised in later stretches of the film. It inhabits an enigmatic register, in which the mysteries it suggests are never easily resolved, but there’s a narrative there which is left for the viewer to interpret.
Director Anucha Boonyawatana อนุชา บุญยวรรธนะ; Writers Boonyawatana and Waasuthep Ketpetch วาสุเทพ เกตุเพ็ชร์; Cinematographer Chaiyapruek Chalermpornpanich ชัยพฤกษ์ เฉลิมพรพานิช; Starring Sukollawat Kanarot ศุกลวัฒน์ คณารศ, Anuchit Sapanphong อนุชิต สพันธุ์พงษ์, Sumret Muengput สำเร็จ เมืองพุทธ; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Friday 30 March 2018.