Ouaga Girls (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.

Ouaga Girls film posterCREDITS
Director Theresa Traoré Dahlberg; Cinematographer Iga Mikler; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Friday 20 October 2017.

Even When I Fall (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).

Even When I Fall film posterCREDITS
Directors Kate McLarnon and Sky Neal; Cinematographer Ben Marshall; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Monday 16 April 2018.

Chavela (aka Chavela Vargas, 2017)

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.

Chavela film posterCREDITS
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.

Three Historical Dramas by Raoul Peck: The Man by the Shore (1993), Lumumba (2000) and The Young Karl Marx (2017)

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)”

มะลิลา Malila (Malila: The Farewell Flower, 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.

Malila: The Farewell Flower film posterCREDITS
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.

Pop Aye (2017)

This film is made by a Singaporean director, and I can’t really include that state in my ‘mainland SE Asian cinema’ theme week because it’s an island, albeit one very close to the mainland, with a long history of connection (historically with Malaysia), as well as a number of physical bridges. However, this film was made and filmed in Thailand, so it deserves to be part of this week on that basis. It’s also rather delightful, and though I’m not sure how one might watch it now, it’s worth looking out for.


After only a few films into the 2017 London Film Festival, already this felt like a highlight. At a certain level it maybe isn’t anything new per se. After all, it’s essentially a road trip buddy movie, in which a disenchanted elderly man (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) takes a slow trip back to his family’s roots, as the filmmaker contrasts urban and rural living with a critique of capitalist building developments, and offers a poignant view of those lives lost somewhere in between. But then again, the buddy on the road trip is the titular elephant (actor name Bong), and the man (who is an architect) uses it to reconnect with his younger life, as he reassesses his life’s work and his marriage. The film feels profound in the way it considers the fullness of this man’s (and indeed the elephant’s) life, even as it wears its peripatetic narrative lightly. It also manages to fit in a few beautiful and haunting shots, and some strong supporting character work.

Pop Aye film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kirsten Tan; Cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj ชนานันต์ โชติรุ่งโรจน์; Starring Thaneth Warakulnukroh ธเนศ วรากุลนุเคราะห์, Penpak Sirikul เพ็ญพักตร์ ศิริกุล; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Thursday 5 October 2017.

Die Tomorrow (2017)

There are the first hints around the world that cinemas are starting to reopen in some places, but it will surely be a long time before people are comfortable going back in any great numbers, so I suspect online releases will be the norm for a while yet, and will have renewed importance in the release calendar. At the moment, though, it’s mostly the disposable comedies (on Netflix, say) and the weird arthouse fare (mostly Mubi and BFI Player) that are getting releases, one of which is the Thai-UK co-production Krabi, 2562 this coming Friday, which I saw premiered at London Film Festival last year. Therefore my theme this week will be mainland Southeast Asian films, mostly from Thailand but with a few others from Vietnam and Cambodia too. Looking at this part of the world (also known as the Indochinese Peninsula), I’m missing Laos — the only Lao film I’ve seen was Dearest Sister, which again I’ve reviewed at the LFF already — and regrettably I’ve not yet seen a Burmese film (but I’ll have to rectify that soon).


Nobody actually dies in this film, but the framing device means its presence is constant: the suggestion being that the people we’re seeing will die the next day. It seems to have been inspired by stories in local Thai newspapers, which are recounted in intertitles, leaving us to imagine which of the headlines applies to which of the people we see, each in their own short film. Some are fairly clear (an old man sleeping uneasily, a woman hooked up to a machine) but others are more oblique. The tone throughout the six pieces varies somewhat, but underpinning it is a meditative register, and the film embraces stillness and contemplation, as in one young woman apparently thinking on the death of a colleague while heavily made up for the filming of a commercial. It’s a nice conceit, which could be a lot more morbid than it is, but instead feels like a reckoning with life.

Die Tomorrow film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit นวพล ธำรงรัตนฤทธิ์; Cinematographer Niramon Ross นิรมล รอสส์; Starring Jarinporn Joonkiat จรินทร์พร จุนเกียรติ, Patcha Poonpiriya พัชชา พูนพิริยะ, Sunny Suwanmethanon ซันนี่ สุวรรณเมธานนท์; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Friday 12 July 2019.

Two Crime Thrillers by the Safdie Brothers: Good Time (2017) and Uncut Gems (2019)

Neither of these films is ‘mumblecore’ or even independent, but the Safdie brothers come from that kind of no-budget background; their first film The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2009, directed by Josh, though Benny was involved in editing) has a very loose narrative centered on a woman who’s a kleptomaniac (I’ve seen it, and liked it, but I barely managed to write more than a sentence). It’s only with their last couple of features that they’ve really broken through, and perhaps that’s the involvement of bankable screen names, but if so their style is still very much firmly planted in the grainy textures of their 16mm roots, harking back to a certain kind of gritty 70s NYC-based crime thriller. In both films, there’s a propulsive energy that rarely seems to let up, as characters make bad decision upon bad decision, compounding their situation ever more precariously as the films continue. These are thrillers, but grounded in the characters and their struggles.

Continue reading “Two Crime Thrillers by the Safdie Brothers: Good Time (2017) and Uncut Gems (2019)”

Outside In (2017)

I was unsure how to follow a week of American films directed by women, but the unexpected news of the death of director Lynn Shelton was on my thoughts this weekend. I’ve reviewed two of her films here already, Touchy Feely (2013) and Laggies (2014, known as Say When in the UK), the latter of which I think may be my favourite. I’m not much of a writer of obituaries, and I wouldn’t really know where to begin with her life, though she was a long-time resident of the Pacific Northwest and made most of her films there, having started as an editor and done a little acting, such as in Nights and Weekends. She was inspired when she was almost 40 by hearing Claire Denis talk about her work, to start making her own films. She only had a decade and a half of that since her 2006 debut feature, during which time she worked in both cinema and on many acclaimed TV shows (titles like Mad Men, The Good Place, GLOW and the recent Little Fires Everywhere adaptation), and was, I think, really starting to flourish creatively. Her death is a sad loss to independent American cinema, and if you want to know more you could do worse than listening to the long-form interview on WTF Podcast. But as surely the best way to honour a director is to watch their films, I thought I would devote a week to that — not just her films (because I wouldn’t have enough reviews for a week), and not just the so-called “mumblecore” of the mid-2000s, but all the low-budget filmmaking since then (along with films by directors who came out of that), anything which shares a similar devotion to character and setting, and inevitably will touch on several more of Shelton’s films in the process.


This is another of Lynn Shelton’s wonderful, quiet little films about people dealing with heavy stuff in a low-key way. Like many such films, it features one of the Duplass brothers (Jay), here playing a guy called Chris, back in his small Pacific Northwest town after being released from a fairly significant stretch in prison. While there, he connects with his old teacher Carol (Edie Falco), who’d been campaigning on his behalf. There are naturally a few revelations about why he’d been in prison, but these come out rather by-the-by — there are some conflicts, but no huge melodramatic reveals, just a slow drip-feed of feelings that help us connect all these characters, and give a rounded sense of them dealing with various traumas, whether readjustment to civilian life, or a marriage breaking up, or just the sense of being in a small town with nothing much to do.

Outside In film posterCREDITS
Director Lynn Shelton; Writers Shelton and Jay Duplass; Cinematographer Nathan M. Miller; Starring Jay Duplass, Edie Falco, Kaitlyn Dever, Ben Schwartz; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Friday 13 July 2018.

Beach Rats (2017)

The reason for this week’s themed focus on American films directed by women is because the director of today’s film has a new one out on streaming in the UK at the end of the week, the abortion-themed drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always. This wasn’t her debut film, but it feels like some kind of breakthrough and got a fair bit of attention on the festival circuit. It’s a bleak gay story, as so many are, but with an artfulness helped by the cinematography of the great Hélène Louvart (who has shot Alice Rohrwacher’s films amongst others).


If I can be said to have a ‘type’ when it comes to movies, it’s probably the artfully distressed hazy focus-pulling indie intensity of this over the sun-dappled baroqueness of, say, Call Me by Your Name (the film I went to see just before this one) — but it’s not really fair to compare them, just because they both happen to have gay themes. In fact, this film seems to be more a film about everyone’s favourite post-millennial theme: toxic masculinity. It’s about a group of bros with short cropped hair and very well-defined abdominal musculature who aimlessly sit around and smoke weed. Our protagonist Frankie (Harris Dickinson) is dealing with some family drama, but seems to be sort of coasting, interested in men but also very much hiding it from those around him, performatively dressing himself up in hyper-masculine aggression and Instagrammable heteronormativity. I’m sort of over these kinds of stories (gay coming-of-age narratives) leading to bleak places, but in this kind of place, with these kinds of men, it all feels depressingly pre-ordained. Still, it grabs me as a real piece of filmmaking.

Beach Rats film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Eliza Hittman; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 24 November 2017.