左様なら Sayounara (2018)

Still catching up this week with my favourites I saw last year, this one’s a bit of an anomaly. I saw it in that first flush of film festivals moving online, via a “Japanese Film Festival Magazine” website which was streaming a number of recent Japanese films, many by women directors. Perhaps it was seeing this during lockdown that made me respond positively, who knows, but I did very much like it.


There is, of course — given the title, which is reminiscent of the French adieu, in the sense of a final goodbye — a deep seam of sadness and melancholy that laces through this film. This much is clear in its setup: Yuki (Haruka Imo), who seems to be a fairly popular girl in her high school class, starts to become sullen and distant after her friend Aya (Kirara Inori) dies. Despite this, there’s something in the way that it unfolds that has a deeply-felt warmth to it; for all Yuki’s grief, it feels over the course of the film as if Aya’s death allows her to come to value what’s really important in her life. And so she finds herself cutting out the mean girls who share gossip about Aya (speculating that her death in an accident may have been a suicide and revealing that they never really liked her anyway) and starting to welcome new experiences, like going to gigs with the guys in her class who make an effort to reach out to her and don’t seem to hold her in the same shallow judgement. In flashbacks, she relives her times with Aya, rehearsing her grief and admonishing herself for not crying or being appropriately sad at her friend’s death, even as it’s perfectly clear to read on her face how she feels.

None of the drama comes in big gestures or speeches, just in little moments like a classmate shuffling shyly behind her at a school fieldtrip, in which you can see the classmate wanting to reach out to Yuki but opening rather gauchely with “Were you good friends with Aya?” to be rebuffed with a simple “Why?” before falling back, uncertainly, as they both walk on. A lot of the movement of the film is similarly captured by the camera in these emotional exchanges with a thankful paucity of dialogue, but it seems to me that this is as much about the writing and direction allowing this space as it is to the excellent acting of Imo. For all the film’s melancholy, it’s heartening and affecting, and ultimately is not so much about the death of a schoolmate as it is about another finding out how to live (which sounds so much more melodramatic when I write it down than it is in the film).

Sayounara film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Yuho Ishibashi 石橋夕帆; Cinematographer Shu Hagiwara 萩原脩; Starring Haruka Imo 芋生悠, Kirara Inori 祷キララ; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at home (Japanese Film Festival Magazine streaming), London, Thursday 14 May 2020.

Dhalinyaro (aka Youth, 2018)

My main instinct with this film is to hold it back for my Global Cinema series, as I can’t imagine there are a huge number of other Djiboutian films to cover. Still, I like a challenge so hopefully I can find another one to cover when I get to the Ds. In the meantime, this is one of the films I’ve seen in the cinema since I arrived in New Zealand, and I thought broadly favourably about it.


A lot of the drama within this film is somewhat programmatic, in the sense of taking three young women from different walks of life and pushing them together for the sake of narrative expediency. Still, I can’t fault any of the spirited acting from the three leads, and needless to say there aren’t a whole lot of Djiboutian films that I can think of, so it’s just interesting to get an idea of the country. It follows the familiar movements of the coming of age film, as all three study for the college entrance exam, with varying levels of commitment. I also occasionally got the feeling that it didn’t quite know how to resolve some of these storylines, but seeing any of the three smiling was just about the happiest experience, and I can’t blame the filmmaker for wanting the best for her characters.

Dhalinyaro film posterCREDITS
Director Lula Ali Ismaïl لولا علي إسماعيل; Writers Ismaïl and Alexandra Ramniceanu; Cinematographer Jean-Christophe Beauvallet; Starring Amina Mohamed Ali, Tousmo Mouhoumed Mohamed, Bilan Samir Moubus; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Thursday 5 November 2020.

Global Cinema 24: Brazil – The Trial (2018)

Brazil is the biggest country I’ve yet covered in this series and it has a long and fruitful cinema history. Indeed, Mubi where I watched this film has been curating a ‘new Brazilian cinema’ strand over the last few months that has featured plenty of equally interesting titles and if I weren’t a little pressed for time this week I’d have featured more of those films in the leadup to this review. I certainly do intend to do a Brazilian themed week before too long. However, as the film I’m featuring today is about modern Brazilian politics, it seemed like the best introduction to this huge country.


Brazilian flagFederative Republic of Brazil (Brasil)
population 210,147,000 | capital Brasília (3.99m) | largest cities São Paulo (21.3m), Rio de Janeiro (12.4m), Belo Horizonte (5.1m), Recife (4m), Brasília | area 8,515,767 km2 | religion Christianity (87%), none (8%) | official language Portuguese (português) | major ethnicity white (47.7%), mixed (43.1%), Black (7.6%) | currency Real (R$) [BRL] | internet .br

The largest South American country is also the world’s fifth largest by area, and sixth largest by population, so needless to say there’s a lot to fit into this paragraph. It borders all other countries on the continent except Ecuador and Chile, with an incredibly diverse geography. The name comes from the Portuguese for Brazilwood (“pau-brasil”), a tree that once grew along the coast, with this part of its name referring to its reddish colour like an ember (from brasa); in the indigenous Guarani language, it is Pindorama, meaning “land of the palm tree”. Evidence of human habitation goes back some 11,000 years, and the earliest pottery found in the west is from the Amazon basin — around 7 million indigenous people lived in the area covered by the modern country by the arrival of the Portuguese, who claimed the land in April 1500. Colonisation began in earnest around 30 years later, and was divided by King John III into 15 autonomous areas before bringing them back together under unified leadership in 1549. There were any number of wars with indigenous people, whose number were added to by the slave trade from sub-Saharan Africa, brought over to work the sugar plantations (slavery continued until 1850). In the early-19th century, Rio de Janeiro hosted the Portuguese royal court for over a decade, unifying the colony with its coloniser across the Atlantic. However, independence was soon after declared on 7 September 1822, resulting in the foundation of the Empire of Brazil, though a series of internal conflicts and political tensions eventually led to its transformation to a republic in 1889, albeit one essentially under military dictatorship. The ensuing century saw a tumultuous push and pull between dictatorship and socialism, with the current trend being back towards authoritarianism. It is a democratic republic with an elected president.

The film industry can be traced back to the late-19th century, though the country’s production didn’t come to prominence until Cinema Novo in the 1960s under directors such as Glauber Rocha and Nelson Pereira dos Santos, with another more commercial peak in the 1990s. There are a number of prominent film festivals and its films continue to be well-regarded by critics.


O processo (The Trial, 2018)

Though I recognise a few of the names, I am by no means acquainted with Brazilian politics. It’s a huge country, with a huge range of experiences, races, class divides and no doubt a range of very specific things that lead to various factions within their political system. This documentary throws you headlong into that without on-screen captions as to who the people we see are, and with only a few intertitles for context, as its first woman President, Dilma Rousseff, faces impeachment for a small number of charges which — depending on your viewpoint, and all of them get voice here — could either be rather minor in the scheme of things and therefore a pretext for a coup, or else evidence of deeper corruption. And aside from Rousseff, a few other major figures (mostly men) are also in the firing line for corruption and criminal charges.

What becomes evident though is that, notwithstanding your familiarity with the specifically Brazilian context, the kinds of political theatre we are accustomed to seeing in all our countries, and the creeping way of the fascist right to turn the electorate against itself, is very familiar. What is also interesting is that aside from Rousseff herself (who is more talked about than actually seen or heard), the impeachment trials and the film itself seems to converge around two other women — though there are no talking heads interviews, so it’s all very much in overheard meetings, brief news clips, press conferences and parliamentary proceedings. These are Janaina Paschoal (a lawyer and prosecutor, subsequently elected as a member of a far right party) and Gleisi Hoffmann, who is in Rousseff’s party and a senator at the time of the trial. Again, without offering overt context, the film allows the viewer to form their own opinion of the various arguments, though Hoffmann feels like a compelling presence at the edges of this show trial.

Anyway, my main point is that though I didn’t know much about Brazil or its politics, this documentary felt compelling and interesting, not just about that country but about democracies, and the propensity for various factions to derail them. I’m not sure that the subsequent election of Jair Bolsonaro allays any of those fears.

The Trial film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Maria Augusta Ramos; Cinematographers Alan Schvarsberg and David Alves Mattos; Length 137 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 10 September 2020.

The Sisters Brothers (2018)

I took a break last week because I was on holiday (although didn’t end up leaving home), but this week I’ll be building up to my Global Cinema entry on Belgium (on Saturday). As a loose theme, then, I’m covering films with a Belgian production credit, though it turns out a lot of films with some Belgian financing aren’t particularly ‘Belgian’, whatever that might amount to. This one, for example, is an American film by a French director, also co-produced by partners from Belgium, Romania and Spain, so it spans plenty of countries, without really representing any of them exactly — except of course America, where it’s set. Still, it’s a way of looping in a lot of not very Belgian films into consideration this week.


This Western crime comedy drama is directed by a French man with an enormous number of production deals (the first title card of the film, as it builds up all its production and co-production credits, is itself somewhat hilarious) and surely has a lot of money on-screen in what I assume is a faithful rendering of Oregon and California in the mid-19th century. However, it does strike rather an odd tone, a sort of laidback melancholia with bursts of violence and goriness that leads up to a dream-like ending, a story of two brothers (Reilly and Phoenix) who have a quest, even if that quest largely loops back to a consideration of their own family and the way they have been brought up. The acting is, as you might expect, very solid, with no notable let-downs, and Phoenix is a particular good fit to his character. Some of the digital photography seemed just a little on the ‘uncanny’ side, but maybe that was just me or the screening I was at. In any case, there’s plenty to like here, but it is at the very least meandering.

The Sisters Brothers film posterCREDITS
Director Jacques Audiard; Writers Audiard and Thomas Bidegain (based on the novel by Patrick deWitt); Cinematographer Benoît Debie; Starring John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 20 April 2019.

Dreamaway (2018)

A recent film from Egypt (co-produced by Germany, with a German co-director and cinematographer) is this piece which sits somewhere between an evocatively artful documentary and something fictionalised, though quite where the boundaries between the two lie is open to interpretation. It was one of my favourite films of the London Film Festival in 2018, so I’m saddened there hasn’t been much distribution of it since then because I think it’s really interesting and beautiful, and I wonder if holiday resorts in the age of Covid-19 look somewhat similar right now?


Although billed as a documentary, Dreamaway (as it’s styled on screen, though often referred to as Dream Away) lies somewhere just between that and fiction, presenting stories of real people in a real place, but with just a slight hint that these are fictionalised versions, or reconstructions, workshopped with a non-professional cast (albeit people who have done and experienced the real life depicted). There are all these hints throughout that what we’re seeing is at one stage removed from pure observational documentary filmmaking — a sage-like man in a monkey costume asking questions from the back of a truck, or all the key characters trudging through the desert in search of nothing like the characters in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Partly this may be to stay on the right side of the censors, for after all it’s hardly the rosiest portrait of the Egyptian tourist industry at Sharm-el-Shaikh (we barely see any tourists at all, as all these service workers turn down beds, DJ music, and do fitness routines for an audience of no one). But it’s a canny move in a film that has much of the same feeling as Alma Har’el’s films (Bombay Beach or LoveTrue), somewhere at the interstices of reality and make-believe — then again, a lot of the world it depicts could be said to inhabit that same duality, creating this fake English-speaking zone of no conflict in a country consumed by it in recent years.

Dreamaway film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Marouan Omara مروان عمارة and Johanna Domke; Cinematographer Jakob Beurle; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Friday 19 October 2018.

Two Short Documentaries by Lynne Sachs: The Last Happy Day (2009) and The Washing Society (2018)

One of the special focus strands of the Sheffield Doc/Fest online programme in 2020 was the experimental documentary filmmaker Lynne Sachs, who has an extensive body of work across a number of different documentary interests. I watched two of her films out of the handful made available (some of the rest are still online for festival attendees, so I am determined to catch up with them), and present reviews below — or, maybe I should say, more impressionistic observances as I cannot claim they are as deeply considered as I would like.


The Washing Society (2018)

This isn’t a long film, clocking in at about 45 minutes, but it’s a curious blend of documentary and staged fiction. It films a number of New York laundromats, showing their working environments and including some comments by a number of the workers. However, it starts with a Black woman speaking an historical text and then places her in the space of a laundromat opening for the day, and throughout the film her presence functions as a sort of historical commentary making clear the racialised nature of this work, which is somehow so intangible and invisible to so many people. As the film progresses, the testimonies start to become more like monologues, rather more clearly delivered by actors, itself eventually seguing into a musical performance piece on the machines themselves.

The Washing Society film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Lynne Sachs and Lizzie Olesker; Cinematographer Sean Hanley; Length 44 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Saturday 4 July 2020.


The Last Happy Day (2009)

I find it sometimes very easy to criticise documentaries for following a standard talking heads format, but of course Lynne Sachs doesn’t even approach anything resembling the clichés of the form. This medium-length piece does, however, use occasional on-screen captions to contextualise her story of a distant relative, the Hungarian Jew Sandor Lenard (aka Alexander Lenard), who fled shortly before the outbreak of World War II and eventually found himself in Brazil, where he undertook Latin translations, including of Winnie the Pooh (sorry, Winnie Ille Pu). That said, her experimental practice means that it’s difficult to pick out everything that’s going on here, and I imagine wider viewing of her oeuvre would help more in that respect, but there seems to be an idea of the painful ruptures of war and exile being healed at least somewhat by language, or perhaps the idea of translation (given that the language in question is hardly a widely shared one). It’s a family story, too, so children in Sachs’ own family appear on screen to read Lenard’s letters or comment on them (very eloquently, given their age). These are ideas that come out, not inaccessibly, but in a dense mixture of text and image and voice.

The Last Happy Day film posterCREDITS
Director Lynne Sachs; Cinematographers Sachs and Ethan Mass; Length 38 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Tuesday 21 July 2020.

Global Cinema 10: Austria – L’animale (2018)

Austria is a well developed country with a lot of history but being German-speaking I do wonder if sometimes it’s easily mixed up with its larger neighbour. Still, plenty of excellent directors and actors have come from that country, and it remains a strong filmmaking nation.


Austrian flagRepublic of Austria (Österreich)
population 8,902,600 | capital Vienna (Wien) (1.8m) | largest cities Vienna, Graz (270k), Linz (194k), Salzburg (147k), Innsbruck (125k) | area 83,879 km2 | religion Catholicism (57%) | official language German (Deutsch) | major ethnicity Austrian (81%) | currency Euro (€) [EUR] | internet .at

A landlocked Alpine country formed of nine federated states, it is largely mountainous, albeit with some plains in the east. The name is from the Old High German for “eastern realm” and first appeared at the end of the 10th century, probably deriving from Mediæval Latin. It was settled by Celtic tribes, but conquered by the Roman Empire as the kingdom of Noricum. Charlemagne conquered the area in the late-8th century, and it was first defined as a state of its own in 976, when granted to the house of Babenberg. It later became a duchy, then eventually fell under the house of Habsburg in the Middle Ages. The Austrian Empire was founded in 1804, then Austria-Hungary in 1867; when the Archduke was assassinated in 1914 it prompted World War I, at the end of which the Empire was dissolved. German-speaking Austria became a Republic, and briefly annexed to Germany in 1938 until the end of World War II. It has a directly elected President, who selects a Chancellor to head the Federal Government.

The earliest films made in the country were newsreels, with the earliest native productions being erotic short films from 1906. Mainstream production began in 1910, kicking into high gear during the war and after. A number of filmmakers emigrated to the west during the Austria-Hungary years and as the German annexation began to be felt, including Erich von Stroheim and Josef von Sternberg early on, then later Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger and others. Musical comedies became popular following WW2, but filmmaking had dried up by the 1970s aside from avant garde film production (names like Kurt Kren, Peter Kubelka, Valie Export being the most prominent). Contemporary filmmakers have started to come to international prominence, most notably Michael Haneke, but also Jessica Hausner, Barbara Albert, Michael Glawogger, Ulrich Seidl and Nikolaus Geyrhalter, amongst others.


L’animale (2018)

There’s a certain slightly forced quality to the narrative that you expect from a new filmmaker — the way it sets up parallel storylines between parents and children, the use of the title song to link their stories — but on the whole this is a really tightly-controlled film about repressed small town attitudes and people trying to break out of their learned habits. It’s about a young woman (Sophie Stockinger) who finds she’s attracted to another woman — much to her surprise, perhaps less to the audience — while her father grapples with his own sexuality. It’s all shot in a frontal style with slow movements and a clarity to the image that just sets it slightly apart from reality perhaps, while the acting taps into some of the simmering rage that lurks beneath the surface of many of the characters. I think there’s definitely a director worth watching here, and her film is not a million miles from the work of some of the (particularly excellent) recent Austrian and German language women filmmakers like Valeska Grisebach, Jessica Hausner and Angela Schanelec.

L'animale film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Katharina Mückstein; Cinematographer Michael Schindegger; Starring Sophie Stockinger, Julia Franz Richter, Jack Hofer; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Sunday 30 December 2018.

Joy (2018)

Because my Global Cinema series will be covering the country of Austria tomorrow, I’ve done a week of German-language cinema by women filmmakers. The most recent release I’m covering is this film I saw at the 2018 London Film Festival, where it won the main prize. It’s very far from a joyful film, despite its title, and is a tough watch, but is available on Netflix (at least in the UK).


I’m not sure how to feel about this film, but it’s certainly not always an easy watch — there’s no happy ending on offer, despite the title (the name of the central character, played by Joy Anwulika Alphonsus, rather than a particularly defining emotion throughout the film). It’s also not, I would hope, intended to be a film about how it is to be a sex worker but rather presents one particular experience, which is of non-European women (in this case, Nigerian) trafficked into sex work and trapped for a significant chunk of time through mounting debts in a form of slavery. The filmmaker bookends the film with scenes set back in Nigeria, though this is largely an Austrian film from an outsider’s perspective — at least, though, it balances the early scene of juju witchcraft practised in Nigeria with a similarly syncretic religious/pagan folk tradition in the mountains of Austria. It also keeps its focus firmly on the character of Joy, so even when we see well-meaning (white) Austrians trying to help her, it’s clear how ineffectual they are and how impossible it is for Joy to act according to what they consider the self-evidently moral and righteous response. Joy’s story is part of an ingrained and ever-repeating cycle of exploitation and capitalism founded on the inequalities of the world’s economy, so the film recognises all it can do is shine a light on this one immigrant story.

Joy film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sudabeh Mortezai; Cinematographer Klemens Hufnagl; Starring Joy Anwulika Alphonsus, Mariam Sanusi; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Tuesday 16 October 2018.

Rajma Chawal (2018)

A recent release that I saw at the London Film Festival a couple of years ago, and which is now on Netflix, fits into the very familiar and comfortable patterns of the romcom. It overlays a traditional familial relationship, updating it to the social media age in some pretty heavy-handed ways at times, but I found it likeable all the same.


I was honestly sort of expecting to hate this once the film had set up the premise — which it does very swiftly — as out-of-touch newly-widowed father tries to connect with his moody musician son using social media (specifically Facebook messenger), by impersonating a hot woman whose picture his own mother has found on the internet. These are broad strokes, very very broad, and they are played for the expected laughs (it’s all too easy to laugh at people acting stupidly). However, as the film went on I found myself enjoying it quite in spite of myself, perhaps because of the likeability of all the leads, and the gusto with which they go about their somewhat hackneyed plot, but also because of the filmmaking on show. There’s a really lovely and evocative sequence of the son moving physically through his memories and encountering his mother on the street. I wasn’t entirely sold on the son’s music, and as I said already, it can get quite broad in its humour, but it remains a sweet romcom.

Rajma Chawal film posterCREDITS
Director Leena Yadav लीना यादव; Writers Vivek Anchalia, Manu Rishi Chadha and Yadav; Cinematographer Donald McAlpine; Starring Rishi Kapoor ऋषी कपूर, Anirudh Tanwar, Amyra Dastur अमायरा दस्तूर; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Tottenham Court Road, London, Sunday 21 October 2018.

राज़ी Raazi (2018)

Meghna Gulzar is a filmmaker with a family history in the arts, who has directed a number of films, including one I reviewed recently upon the untimely death of Irrfan Khan, Talvar (2015). She has a distinctive style and an interest in historical stories that puts her a little outside the usual glam and glitz of the Bollywood musical romantic comedy setpieces. This film from a couple of years ago also stars the lovely Alia Bhatt, one of my favourite contemporary actors, who was in the recent Gully Boy (2019), the delightful Dear Zindagi (2016) and the very silly Shaandaar (2015).


The actions of nations at war with one another, with all the outward military braggadocio, nationalist fervour and, behind the scenes, deadly games of subterfuge and espionage, have always been great fodder for big-screen drama. And it’s usually too easy for filmmakers to lapse into one-note patriotism and against-the-odds heroics, which is why this film feels so interesting to me. Its star Alia Bhatt plays an Indian spy in the lead up to the brief Indo-Pakistani war of 1971, who inveigles her way into a leading Pakistani military family in the aims of sending vital intelligence back to her own country, but yet her character isn’t defined by what she does during that time, and she goes through great emotional trauma in getting her job done. This means that there are a lot of punchy scenes with Bhatt breaking down under the strain, but thankfully she’s an excellent actress and equal to that. Yet her character has a job to do and is competent at it even when personal ties make it difficult, and the film lies in that awkward place between personal responsibility and the dangerous (if not at times lethal) requirements of her profession.

It is successful not just because of the enormous charm and acting ability of its lead (not to mention the supporting cast: her Indian spy handler has more than a little of Colin Firth to him), but with a great deal of commercial sheen to it. 1970s period details are left comfortably in the background to the central spy vs relationship drama, and the film avoids shifting tones relentlessly (as other big Indian films sometimes have a tendency to do). Being a spy here is gripping stuff, and clearly not as glamorous as some other films make out.

CREDITS
Director Meghna Gulzar मेघना गुलज़ार; Writers Bhavani Iyer भवानी अय्यर and Gulzar (based on the novel Calling Selmat by Harinder Sikka हरिंदर सिक्का); Cinematographer Jay I. Patel জয় আই. প্যাটেল; Starring Alia Bhatt आलिया भट्ट, Vicky Kaushal विक्की कौशल; Length 140 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Tuesday 22 May 2018.