NZIFF 2021: Quo vadis, Aida? (2020)

The centrepiece film of my Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival last month — both halfway through the festival and halfway through the total number of films I saw — was this festival favourite of last year, finally making its way to NZ’s shores. It’s a tough watch certainly, but brilliantly made (seemingly a co-production between half of Europe from all the countries and production companies attached).


It’s fair to say this isn’t a cheerful watch and if I’d paid much attention to the write-up I’d probably have known that going in. I have seen Grbavica, an earlier film by the same director, so I get the sense she makes films that engage with the modern history of her country — or at least that’s what gets international attention (since I see she also has a film called Love Island which I now want to watch, but that’s an aside) — but this one tackles the Srbrenica massacre head-on. That said, you don’t really need any historical context to become aware of just where this drama is heading, because much of it is carried in the intense, cold, hard stare of its title character, a Bosnian translator working for the UN (and played brilliantly by Jasna Đuričić). When the Serbs under Ratko Mladić (Boris Isaković) march into Srebrenica, displacing the Bosniak Muslim population, the UN take shelter of them and promise airstrikes in retaliation, but as seen here through the eyes of Aida, there is an increasing sense of desperation and futility amongst the (Dutch) UN officers in charge on the ground.

The film tracks all this without resorting to any sentimental metaphors or grandstanding, because it’s carried through the demeanour of Đuričić, as she scurries back and forth around the UN compound trying to secure the safety of her family and being pulled into making increasingly hollow and craven announcements on behalf of her bosses. Nobody ever really states what’s happening, but everyone knows it, and that’s really where the film is operating, on a sense of shared desperation and complicity in genocide, because there’s no political will to do anything else. Yet when the inevitable happens — and thankfully it’s never seen explicitly — it’s still a kick in the guts, whether or not it was ever really preventable. The film leaves us back in Bosnia years later, where everyone still knows everyone else, knows what they did, what side they were on. The film has a repeated motif of just looking into people’s eyes, and in every set we see here reflected back at us, the inevitability is etched.

Quo vadis, Aida (2020) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jasmila Žbanić; Cinematographer Christine A. Maier; Starring Jasna Đuričić Јасна Ђуричић, Izudin Bajrović, Boris Isaković Борис Исаковић, Johan Heldenbergh; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 13 November 2021.

Global Cinema 22: Bosnia and Herzegovina – Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams (2006)

I am currently in the process of moving halfway around the world, so some of my regularly scheduled reviews may be a little delayed, and that’s also the reason I haven’t been running my theme weeks. I’ll get back up to speed soon enough I’m sure, when I have better access to films and places to watch them. In the meantime, here’s an older review (and a rather short one) for a Bosnian film, as we’ve reached that country, which has gone through a tumultuous recent history, and emerged as its own sovereign state in recent years.


Bosnian and Herzegovinian flagBosnia and Herzegovina (Bosna i Hercegovina)
population 3,301,000 | capital Sarajevo (276k) | largest cities Sarajevo, Banja Luka (185k), Tuzla (110.9k), Zenica (110.6k), Bijeljina (108k) | area 51,129 km2 | religion Islam (51%), Christianity (46%) | official language Bosnian (bosanski), Serbian (srpski) and Croatian (hrvatski) | major ethnicity Bosniaks (50%), Serbs (31%), Croats (15%) | currency Convertible mark (konvertibilna marka) (KM) [BAM] | internet .ba

A Balkan country in southeast Europe, with a mountainous interior, flatlands in the northeast, and a Mediterranean climate in the southern (Herzegovina) region, and only 20km coastline on the Adriatic. The name can be traced back to the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII in the 10th century, who wrote of “Bosona”, deriving from the river Bosna, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European for “running water”; Herzegovina meanwhile derives from the German word for “duke” (herzog), in reference to a Mediaeval ruler. Settlement in the region can be traced back to the Upper Paleolithic era (late Stone Age), and has had permanent settlements since the Neolithic. Illyrian and Celtic people gave way to South Slavic, and the earliest existence of Bosnia as a polity was in the 7th century CE. The Banate of Bosnia was established in the C12th followed by the Kingdom in the C14th, then taken up as part of the Ottoman Empire until the 19th century, which is how Islam was introduced. After a brief period as part of Austria-Hungary, it became part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia following World War I, and gained full republic status after WW2. Independence was proclaimed on 1 March 1992, leading to a civil war with Bosnian Serbs that lasted until 1995, ended by the Dayton Agreement that year. The country is largely divided into two as a result (the Federation of B&H and Republika Srpska), with a three member presidency for its three main ethnic groups (Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats), among whom leadership rotates, a democractically-elected parliament, with oversight provided by an external High Representative (required under the terms of the Dayton Agreement to ensure that peace is kept).

The country’s film heritage goes back to its time as part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, with notable Bosnian film figures like Danis Tanović, Emir Kusturica and the director of the film I’ve reviewed below. The Sarajevo Film Festival was established in 1995 and continues to be a prominent part of film culture in the region.


Grbavica (Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams, aka Esma’s Secret, 2006)

Made over a decade after a bitter civil war, the effects of it are still powerfully felt in this Bosnian drama. It’s called Esma’s Secret in the UK, though quite what is that secret never really feels surprising, as the truth is always so painfully near the surface. The source of her trauma, rooted in the civil war, really radiates out from the lead actor’s eyes (Mirjana Karanović), her hollow expressiveness, and it affects particularly her relations with even ostensibly friendly men.

Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams film posterCREDITS
Director Jasmila Žbanić; Writers Žbanić and Barbara Albert; Cinematographer Christine A. Maier; Starring Mirjana Karanović, Luna Mijović; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 26 November 2016.

Little Joe (2019)

I’ve been doing a themed week focused on ‘foreign’ science-fiction, due to the recent release of French film Proxima in cinemas, but once again today’s film is one I’m rather squashing into that remit, being a British film (albeit a co-production with Austria and Germany) in English with British stars. However it’s directed by the wonderful Austrian director Jessica Hausner, one of my favourites, especially for her recent films like this one and Amour Fou. She creates a very controlled and threatening atmosphere in this dystopian sci-fi about genetically modified plants.


I see that this film has been pulling in fairly mixed reviews, probably on account of blending Jessica Hausner’s very particular style, honed over the course of a number of inscrutable dramas about alienation and resentment, to a generic form (broadly speaking, a sort of sci-fi horror thriller). Of course, Hausner’s 2004 film Hotel has a not dissimilar general feel, but she has developed quite a bit as a director since that film, and Little Joe has a supremely polished style. The camera glides around, quite often moving in to focus on the intangible space between characters as much as the people themselves. The threat here, then, is an unseen one in the air, particularly apropos for this particular historical moment one might say (mid-2020), and feels reminiscent of Safe (along with a dissonant score and subtly alienating sound effects), though this film is more directly about the dangers of messing with Nature.

Emily Beecham (sporting a shock of ginger hair reminiscent of earlier iconic roles by her co-star Kerry Fox) is Alice, a scientist working with Ben Whishaw’s Chris on a new houseplant which they hope will promote happiness via some genetic modifications, but… things start to go awry, and eventually it just seems to be Alice who questions the potential dangers of this new plant. Unlike in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the way that others become infected are subtle and deniable, such that Alice finds herself questioning her own experiences; the allegorical danger the film raises is not simply that of interfering with nature, but implicates the recognisable contours of our own current workplace culture. It’s stylish and atmospheric, building tension impressively without resorting to hysteria.

Little Joe film posterCREDITS
Director Jessica Hausner; Writers Hausner and Géraldine Bajard; Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht; Starring Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player via Amazon streaming), London, Monday 22 June 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.

Menschenfrauen (1980)

In my German-language women directors theme week, I’ve been running a strand of secondary reviews each day of films that are a little bit odd and experimental, and this one by Austrian mixed media artist Valie Export. Her work here (which is sometimes credited as 1979 or even 1977) plays with feminist ideas of the era, almost comically at times.


There’s something very eighties about this stylistically heterogeneous exploration of male chauvinism and the terrible toll it can exact on women. That’s not just because of its Tom Selleck-like moustachioed lothario (Klaus Wildbolz), or the grainy film stock. Maybe it’s because of the many formal ways the Austrian director experiments with presenting her message, or maybe it’s just that I didn’t always love it. There are, however, moments when you wonder if the way it uses all those distancing formal techniques isn’t just a joke at the expense of the earnest male dialecticians of filmmaking who usually do this kind of stuff. In any case, it’s interesting.

Menschenfrauen DVD coverCREDITS
Director Valie Export; Writer Peter Weibel; Cinematographers Wolfgang Dickmann and Karl Kases; Starring Klaus Wildbolz, Renée Felden, Maria Martina, Susanne Widl; Length 132 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 3 June 2017.

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)”

Die Geträumten (The Dreamed Ones, 2016)

Another odd independent Austrian filmmaker is Ruth Beckermann, who has been working since the 1970s and whose films have largely been documentaries but like the one below, have played with the edges of dramatisation or with historical subjectivity. She made a sort of travelogue in A Fleeting Passage to the Orient (1999), which I’ve already reviewed on my blog, though this 2016 film was the first exposure I’d had to her work.


It’s an odd film this one, and its oddness largely lies in its sort of contrapuntal relationship to the documentary genre. Two actors (Anja Plaschg and Laurence Rupp) read letters sent between poets Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann — two people who shared markedly different experiences of wartime Europe — during their relationship from the late-40s to late-60s. As it opens, in darkness, the faces of the actors are seen reading the texts into microphones and I’d thought it might be a sort of Straub/Huillet type exercise (I suppose there are similarities in that those two French-German filmmakers liked deploying texts in brutally minimalist ways). However, though the essential form doesn’t change, there are all kinds of interruptions to our expectations, not least distancing the words expressed with those exchanged between the actors. It’s hard to really encapsulate, but it’s certainly an interesting experience.

The Dreamed Ones film posterCREDITS
Director Ruth Beckermann; Writers Beckermann and Ina Hartwig (based on letters by Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan); Cinematographer Johannes Hammel; Starring Anja Plaschg, Laurence Rupp; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Thursday 8 December 2016.

Two Early Films by Jessica Hausner: Lovely Rita (2001) and Hotel (2004)

I’m building up to another entry of my Global Cinema series on Saturday, one which focuses on Austria, and so I’m doing a themed week around German-language films directed by women. One of my favourite Austrian filmmakers has been Jessica Hausner, who probably had her breakthrough with her third feature-length film, Lourdes (2009), a film about a young woman with MS in search of a miracle in the pilgrimage site of the title, and one I saw when it came out in cinemas. However, it was her follow-up Amour Fou (2014) which really captured my attention. I think her most recent film, the English-language Little Joe (2019) which premiered at last year’s London Film Festival, is probably a little underrated as a result of the language, but it maintains a really consistently creepy tone, which her first two films indicate is something she has always been skilful at.


It’s interesting, after seeing Hausner’s later films, to watch her feature debut and identify some stylistic continuities. There’s a stillness to the way scenes play out, an affectless quality to the acting, and underlying it all, something utterly morbid. Here though there’s an ugly visual texture which may be due to financial constraints but which is completely embraced and even feels right for the story — little tics like the quick zooms and the self-conscious acting which suggest dated and cheesy TV soaps. It makes the way the actions of the title character unfold that much more surprising, even shocking. It’s an interesting debut in any case.

Hausner’s second feature, Hotel (2004), manages to sustain — without anything graphic happening — a creepy atmosphere of dark portent, although the remote hotel setting helps with that, as does the largely still camerawork. Shots recede into darkness and corridors lead out of sight as our heroine is frequently seen disappearing into the frame (somewhat as the poster suggests). It’s all very studied, but it does work quite effectively.

Lovely Rita film posterLovely Rita [classification 15]
Director/Writer Jessica Hausner; Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht; Starring Barbara Osika, Christoph Bauer; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 16 May 2016.

Hotel film posterHotel (2004) [classification 12]
Director/Writer Jessica Hausner; Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht; Starring Franziska Weisz, Birgit Minichmayr; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 10 July 2016.

Ein flüchtiger Zug nach dem Orient (A Fleeting Passage to the Orient, 1999)

Following on from my post about Ulrike Ottinger’s Chamisso’s Shadow earlier today, another filmmaker crafting a similar meeting between history and travel is Ruth Beckermann, whose work I discuss today takes the form of a travelogue but again uses historical texts and incidents to structure it, finding a little bit of the past in present actions perhaps, and revealing something of the world as it’s not perhaps frequently seen by the West.


An essay film with shades of Chantal Akerman I thought, in the way it elegantly constructs its telling of the story of the peripatetic later life travels of Empress Elisabeth of Austria in the 19th century with its own travelogue visions of Egypt. There are lateral tracking shots of markets and bridges across the Nile, among many other sights and sounds of the country, pulled together by a studied narration (available in both German and English). It seems like something that must be very deeply considered, and I confess that I watched it in probably less than the careful scrutiny it deserves, but I very much warmed to the sense of feeling it imparts (presumably somewhat like the Empress would herself have encountered) of peering somehow through the exoticised Othering of Egypt and its people that exists in the West, of getting a glimpse of life in this bustling world city, albeit with a certain distance.

A Fleeting Passage to the Orient film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ruth Beckermann; Cinematographers Nurith Aviv נורית אביב and Sophie Cadet; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 30 January 2020.