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.

Global Cinema, Antigua and Barbuda: Dadli (2018)

A lack of film output, along with rather patchy online availability, means my film choice for the tiny island nation of Antigua and Barbuda is a short film, albeit one with a great facility for the image. It’s hardly a wealthy nation, though, especially after recent hurricanes, but it has natural beauty, and that much has attracted a healthy tourist industry.


Antiguan flagAntigua and Barbuda
population 96,000 | capital St John’s (23k) | largest cities St John’s, All Saints (3.4k), Liberta (2.2k), Potter’s Village (2.1k), Bolans (1.8k) | area 440 km2 | religion Christianity (77%) | official language English | major ethnicity Black African (91%) | currency East Caribbean dollar ($) [XCD] | internet .ag

An island nation in the middle of the Leeward Islands, made up of the two major islands in the country’s name along with a number of smaller ones, though the vast majority of the population is on Antigua (especially since a 2017 hurricane which destroyed much of Barbuda’s buildings). The island was settled around 3000 BCE by the Ciboney Amerindians, succeeded by the Saladoid people from the Orinoco, then the Caribs. The English came in the mid-17th century, and slaves were imported to work the tobacco and sugar plantations. It gained partial independence from the UK in 1967, followed by full independence on 1 November 1981. It retains the British monarch as head of state, with its own Prime Minister as head of government.

The first feature film made by the island nation was in 2001, so it’s fair to say it hasn’t had a huge history of film production.


Dadli (2018)

I think sometimes short films can be perfect — in the sense of taking an idea and completing it, doing everything that can be done — but others are like fragments of a longer experience, and this feels like the latter. It’s gorgeously evocative (directed and photographed by the cinematographer who did Skate Kitchen amongst others), starting and ending with ravishing sunsets over his native island nation, and features a number of voices, whether the young kid seen wrangling a donkey, or an older man reflecting on his life. However, these feel like miniatures from what should be a full-length piece. Still, even as it is, it’s a fleeting elegy for a lost way of life (and I gather from the director’s notes that this area, almost a shanty town, was bulldozed), with a brief glimpse of a cruise ship looming ominously, portentously.

CREDITS
Directors Shabier Kirchner and Elise Tyler; Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner; Length 14 minutes.
Seen at home (Vimeo streaming), London, Saturday 9 May 2020.

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin (2018)

As of writing this (and hopefully not for too much longer), I’ve never actually read any of the work of Ursula K. Le Guin, and I feel ashamed at that. More than ever, it’s important to celebrate authors who work in the fantasy and science-fiction genres who deal frankly and positively with difference, specifically characters with fluid gender and sexual identities, characters which cut across class divides and are sympathetic and believable. Le Guin has been doing so since the 1960s, and too many authors with a lot of media cachet have been getting recent media traction with appalling untruths about, for example, transgender people. Difference is still scary and threatening to far too many people, and reading the work of authors like Le Guin is a small way to rectify that.


A straightforward hour-long talking heads documentary about an American fantasy author who died at the age of 88 in January 2018. It dwells most on her upbringing and the work in the 1960s that made her name, and about her own personal growth in encountering feminism and moving from primarily male protagonists to integrate different class and gender perspectives into her stories from the 1970s onwards. As it’s quite short, you get the sense that there’s a lot more that could be covered, and it leans rather heavily on the opinions of David Mitchell and Neil Gaiman, but on the whole this is a fascinating piece. In particular, her speech near the end of her life to the National Book Awards is a reminder that her acuity and social consciousness remained undiminished throughout her life.

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Arwen Curry; Cinematographer Andrew Black; Length 68 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Saturday 10 November 2018.

What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (2018)

Another film that seems relevant to recent political and social crises is this documentary from 2018, re-edited in a shorter ‘director’s cut’ the following year (where it also screened at the Sheffield Doc/Fest). I’ve seen critiques of the film from Black critics, a sense of it as being overly aestheticised and a little removed perhaps from the lives and struggles it’s showing, but the director was keen to emphasise the collaborative nature of the work.


The director was presenting a ‘director’s cut’ of this film (at 106 minutes, slightly shorter than the version premiered at Venice last year and shown at the 2018 London Film Festival), and though I can’t compare the two versions, this is a beautiful monochrome-shot film about a few different Black experiences of life in and around New Orleans. At times there’s some of the quietly observed quotidian reality that you get in, say, RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening, or a hint at the kinds of generational stories in the TV show Treme, not to mention a panoply of images that recall a myriad of great films about the American South, even at times a sense of a staged performance (as during Judy’s literal performance in her bar near the end of the film). However, this feels like a film that’s not quite observational documentary but a sort of collaborative improvisation, in which Minervini (as he was careful to stress in an on-stage Q&A afterwards) wanted to present voices and stories that were not and could never be his own, and to respect them. So all those familiar stories, about Black peoples’ lives and deaths, about trying to move beyond trauma, or sometimes the inability to do so, these are presented in a graceful, economical manner — you’re never far from the trauma, but that doesn’t feel like the totality of experience by any means. Judy in her bar, the Mardi Gras Indians sewing their elaborate costumes while singing, the two boys playing outside and alongside railroad tracks, Judy’s mother doing her washing out the front of her home, even the New Black Panthers organising and handing out meals and water to local homeless people or protesting the deaths of Black men at the hands of police, all of these moments are both filled with joy and hope even while being inflected by countless stories, memories and history, ones spoken about and others unspoken. There are three central groups of characters in this film, but there are hundreds of stories in every sequence I think, and that’s what Minervini is great at capturing.

What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire? film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Roberto Minervini; Cinematographer Diego Romero; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 12 April 2019.

El silencio de otros (The Silence of Others, 2018)

This past week has seen the launch of an online platform for streaming films from the 2020 Sheffield Doc/Fest, which has obviously been unable to go ahead in physical form. It’s one of Britain’s premier film festivals, dedicated to documentary cinema and a key launching pad for films in that genre for a number of years now, and only growing in international significance. In fact, last year I put the 2020 dates in my diary, intending to try and visit in person, which I hope to do again in future. It’s also fair to say that a large number of the films premiered there have fed into local cinema releases, and notably films that are shown at the Bertha DocHouse screen of the Curzon Bloomsbury, one of the only screens (if not the only one) dedicated solely to documentary films, and one of the venues I have most missed these past few months.

So this week I will focus on documentary films, specifically ones which screened at Sheffield or received a premiere at that festival. In 2018, for example, one of the big award winners was the excellent documentary about inner city life (and skateboarding), Minding the Gap, and there were screenings of films I’ve already covered like Hale County This Morning, This Evening and Black Mother. The winner of the 2018 Grand Jury prize was the Spanish film The Silence of Others, which confronts the way that people misremember even recent history, which has been a topic of some news coverage recently, what with our (British) government doubling down on honouring and supporting the statues of slave traders and famous colonialist and racists; there’s a sequence in this documentary in which a city council is frustrated repeatedly in its attempts to try and address its (relatively recent) fascist past, and that is very much a theme running through this entire work. We must not be silent about our history, wherever we live.


Some stories are important to try and remember, and that’s especially the case with Spain under the government of Francisco Franco from the 1930s to his death in 1975, given that the Spanish Parliament’s response to his regime was passing a ‘Pact of Forgetting’ in 1977 that gave amnesty to Franco’s victims but also, importantly, to his allies (many of whom were still in powerful positions in the parliament that passed it). The subsequent calls for justice have been slow to build, and largely blocked by the Spanish judiciary and government due to that Pact, hence this story of a group of people uniting to bring a case in Argentina. The film hears the testimonies of some of the people involved in the case, all of whom were either tortured themselves or had family members assassinated by the Franco regime, as well as presenting contemporary footage (such as exists) and contextualising the long legal battle with a gathering of public support. We also clearly see that there’s still a strong contingent of Franco supporters in power even now, as plenty still show up for his birthday, while people in the street talk about leaving the past untouched, and we see a hatchet-faced cadre of supporters amongst the Madrid city councillors, opposed to renaming streets which honoured him and his generals. There’s clearly still a long way for Spain to go in facing its past, but this documentary shows some of the ways this policy of silence is being challenged.

The Silence of Others film posterCREDITS
Directors Robert Bahar and Almudena Carracedo; Writers Ricardo Acosta, Bahar, Carracedo and Kim Roberts; Cinematographer Carracedo; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Tuesday 19 February 2019.

Two Netflix Films about Mediæval Kings in the British Isles: Outlaw/King (2018) and The King (2019)

Although Robert the Bruce (whose story is rendered in Outlaw/King) and Henry V (of The King) were two historical figures whose lives never overlapped, they did live within a few generations of one another (Henry was born around 60 years after Bruce died), and both lived in what was then a divided island, though part of that was down to the actions of Bruce himself. Neither film can probably claim to be great history — they are more invested in generic tropes of heroism and resistance, while The King isn’t even based on the history but on Shakespeare’s rendering of it some century and a half later — but both illuminate some of the ways that history is used and abused, also adding to that popular idea that Mediæval times were all about grim misery, mud and gore.

Continue reading “Two Netflix Films about Mediæval Kings in the British Isles: Outlaw/King (2018) and The King (2019)”

Two 2018 Films by Sergei Loznitsa: Victory Day and The Trial

For my history themed week, I’m focusing on a couple more films which are somewhat tangential to history, both made by a Ukrainian filmmaker. The Trial takes footage from the 1930s and uses it to make a point about the way that events are manipulated by the (state-controlled) media, whereas Victory Day is about the way that history informs the present, specifically World War II, taking a celebration of Soviet victory over Germany, but as it unfolds at a monument in Berlin itself. These are slow, self-effacing documentaries that nonetheless reveal something fairly interesting about the ways we relate to history, and the way it can be used.

Continue reading “Two 2018 Films by Sergei Loznitsa: Victory Day and The Trial”

Two Films about the Personal Legacy of Revolutionary Activity: What Walaa Wants (2018) and Born in Evin (2019)

The topic of resistance includes not only stories about revolutionaries but the stories of their legacy and influence, particularly on their children. These two films are about two such children, who may have grown up either surrounded by conflict and in the often painful absence of their parents (as in the Palestinian story of What Walaa Wants) or, at the other extreme, in complete ignorance of their parents and revolutionary activities, having begun a new life in exile away from those traumas (as with the Iranian daughter of revolutionaries living in Germany, in Born in Evin). Neither film can be entirely satisfactory, because it feels like two people grappling with uncertainty about how to exist in the world, given these backgrounds, but both are illuminating about the generational nature of resistance and trauma.

Continue reading “Two Films about the Personal Legacy of Revolutionary Activity: What Walaa Wants (2018) and Born in Evin (2019)”

Vợ ba (The Third Wife, 2018)

Another strong area of interesting regional cinema in Southeast Asia has been Vietnam which, aside from a few films by Trần Anh Hùng I’d seen decades ago, I have regrettably not been very good at keeping up with in recent years. One recent example that got a UK release was this period drama directed by Ash Mayfair, a young Vietnamese woman director making her feature debut.


I really liked the languid pacing and style of this Vietnamese period film, about May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), a young girl who is married to a wealthy landowner as his third wife (the clue is in the title). Still, it’s a moving depiction of what in the period was not considered an unusual situation, and the film is about her contending with the familial situation into which she finds herself placed, negotiating her feelings with the other wives, and with the other family members. I can’t say that a great deal happens — there’s a secret affair that May witnesses, and meanwhile she strikes up her own feelings towards one of the other wives, but this all comes out in fairly oblique ways. Indeed, the woman directing the film is (understandably) good at avoiding sexualising or sensationalising the story, given the young age of her lead actress, and so it registers far more on an emotional level, though the visuals do have a real beauty to them.

The Third Wife film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ash Mayfair; Cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj ชนานันต์ โชติรุ่งโรจน์; Starring Nguyễn Phương Trà My, Mai Thu Hường, Trần Nữ Yên Khê; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 16 November 2019.

Skate Kitchen (2018)

Crystal Moselle is a New York filmmaker whose debut was a few years ago, so quite some time after the heyday of no-budget filmmaking in the 2000s, though her films have a similar observational, improvised quality (moving more into a documentary feeling). Certainly many of the filmmakers of that era and the stories they tell can be very white and middle-class, so it’s been good to see a new generation telling more diverse stories. Moselle’s first film was The Wolfpack (2015), a documentary which blurred the lines between real life and reenactments of movies, and one that was compelling although I didn’t love it. However, her first fiction feature is one I do unreservedly love, being a fictional narrative but which uses real people in a very unforced depiction of their lives, and which could probably be programmed together with the same year’s Minding the Gap. Moselle has a TV series now out on HBO called Betty which follows some of the same characters, and I’m certainly interested in tracking that down.


One of the things I hate in art/literature/journalism is when someone seizes on [thing the young people do now that we didn’t used to do] and makes it into some kind of big metaphor about how all of society is in decline and we should all just give up now, because how can we even function as humans anymore when things have come to this. I’ve seen a lot of that kind of hand-wringing about social media, and it’s tiresome. Anyway, I’m not even sure that little mini-rant is entirely justified, but yeah there are kids on their phones in this film (we only really see them on Instagram), and it’s just… not a big problem? Like, it’s how they meet up, and it’s fine and there’s no Weighty Statement being made.

I like the way this film approaches its story in an almost documentary-like way. Indeed, it feels like more of a documentary than a “real” one such as All This Panic (also about New York City girls), not to mention this director’s own first film, which has an archness to its choice of documentary subjects. The central drama here, such as it is, comes out as a sort of background detail, which is just as well because it’s pretty rote (overdemanding mother at home, friendship group interrelationships being stretched to breaking point by a boy). Instead what we get are lots of scenes of kids just hanging out, having a good time, sometimes getting into tussles, but it’s cool, they’re just down, doing their skating thing.

It’s really quite delightful. I love its sense of space, of the city as a character here, and the almost thrown-off haphazard way it takes in scenes. Also, the actors — who clearly are real skaters — have an unforced quality to them, and positively glow in the NYC light.

CREDITS
Director Crystal Moselle; Writers Aslıhan Ünaldı, Moselle and Jennifer Silverman; Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner; Starring Rachelle Vinberg, Dede Lovelace, Jaden Smith; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Friday 28 September 2018.