Recently, I reviewed the French-set Une saison en France (A Season in France, 2017) directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, but his earlier works were made in his native country of Chad, which he left in the early-1980s. As becomes clear in these films, his is a country torn apart by Civil War — more or less constant, but flaring up regularly, since the country’s independence in 1960 — and a result of colonial-era divisions between Arab Muslims in the north, and Christians in the south.
Filmmaking by women in the Arab-speaking world has been a relatively new phenomenon, given various social forces that have slowed the cause of women’s rights — many of which are fairly forthrightly confronted in the films which have been made by women in this region — such as Wadjda, a 2012 film by a Saudi Arabian woman. Like Lebanon (and unlike Saudi Arabia), Tunisia has been one of the more progressive countries, and a number of the earliest works by women come from here.
This feature film by a Moroccan woman director, which screened at the recent Shubbak Festival of art from the Arab-speaking world, was introduced there by the excellent British-Iranian producer Elhum Shakerifar (who for me most notably programmes the Middle Eastern and Arabic language films for London Film Festival, which have been a favourite of mine for several years). I didn’t always love it, but it shows a great deal of promise.
The title character’s affectless way of just looking like a deer trapped in headlights somewhat guides this film, as she gives frustratingly vague answers (if she gives any answer at all) to those who question her. She’s given birth to a baby out of wedlock — in what must be about the quickest pregnancy to birth sequence in any film — and this is, as the opening titles make clear, a big problem in conservative Morocco, where having sex out of marriage carries with it a year in jail. But in a sense that unjust law is merely what motivates a drama that goes further than just asking who’s the father, as she starts (in a rather strange way) to realise some power in her situation. Part of that is also a matter of class, as her cousin and aunt are very wealthy and chic, more European than Moroccan, and live in a nice neighbourhood. This accident of birth means she already has access to more resources than most, which becomes clear in the differential between her and the ostensible father, Omar, and between him and his own family. I can’t say I always responded to the central performance, but the film is examining some interesting dynamics in modern Morocco.
Director/Writer Meryem Benm’Barek-Aloïsi مريم بنمبارك; Cinematographer Son Doan; Starring Maha Alemi مهى العلمي, Sarah Perles سارة بيرلس; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at Barbican Cinema, London, Wednesday 3 July 2019.
I was first exposed to Annemarie Jacir’s films via Wajib at the London Film Festival in 2017, but I’ve since caught up with her first two feature films. She was born in Bethlehem in 1974, but left to study in the United States. She has written poetry, but is now primarily known for her filmmaking, and is at the vanguard of Palestinian film culture, which I can only imagine is a precarious enterprise in itself (after all, her films gain their funding from many different sources from several different continents, making their co-production credits pretty extensive). Moreover, her work deals with the status of the displaced, whether historically (as in When I Saw You) or in a contemporary setting, and sometimes more directly confronts how it is to live under a state of occupation.
For most of the past week, my blog has been focusing on the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, with a roster of mighty melodramas, but in the modern era directors like Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu have found box office success (both in Mexico and in the United States, where many of them work now) in a variety of genres, though often still tending towards the dark and thorny. None has gained quite as much fervid festival acclaim (not to mention exasperated brickbats) than Carlos Reygadas, who unlike his contemporaries has remained in Mexico to make his films, rich with religious symbolism, copious sex and an austerely formal camera style. He made his name with Japón (2001, which is on the Criterion Collection now), and followed with the divisive Battle in Heaven (2005, below), with its Bressonian approach to non-actors combined with rather more florid content than Bresson would ever have countenanced. 2007’s Silent Light is to my mind his finest picture in terms of reconciling his themes and formal style, dealing with a Mennonite community, but Post Tenebras Lux (2012) has many admirers. His most recent film (Our Time) is also his longest, and is reviewed below.
Another of those films I first saw back in the 90s and enjoyed at the time, as it fit into that dark satirical space where you could laugh at the mind-blowing conceit of it all — documentarians cross the line into complicity with their (murderous) subject in what is presented as a documentary. Oh how we loved the ‘mockumentary’ that decade. So meta! So intelligently mocking! Well, anyway, I’m not sure it holds up, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m not on the wavelength of Belgian humour. I’m not in my 20s anymore is the key I think; I’m not so willing to laugh at rape and murder, however absurd, however ironically distanced. I don’t judge those who do, and I don’t think I’m better than any, it just doesn’t tickle me in quite the same way. It doesn’t help too that the pseudo-documentary style has become so familiar in intervening years. That all said, given the low budget, it’s made with a lot of style, and the performances are all solid. There are even some really good gags. I just find its satirical intent is clear within 10 minutes so the rest is largely padding.
Criterion Extras: Chief among the extras is the student short by the filmmakers with a similar low-budget style, Pas de C4 pour Daniel-Daniel (No C4 for Daniel-Daniel, 1987), styled as an extended trailer for an action movie, replete with all the hoary clichés of that genre. It’s fitfully amusing but maybe Belgian humour just goes above my head, or maybe their satire (which involves a blackface character as a manservant) is too subtle. There’s also a video interview with the filmmakers upon the feature film’s release, in which they goof around, and also a small gallery of stills from the production.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde; Writers Belvaux, Bonzel, Poelvoorde and Vincent Tavier; Cinematographer Bonzel; Starring Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s house (DVD), London, Sunday 16 July 2017 (and years earlier on VHS in Wellington).
Horror movies at their best allegorise traumatic experiences and Raw — or Grave in its original French title, which means something more like “serious”, and is a phrase thrown around a few times during the film in reference to lead character Justine’s changes — takes on that transition to university with aplomb. It is, to be sure, rather more disturbing than my own time as a first year but it captures something of that desire to fit in and also be a part of a larger group. Here the students are aspiring vets largely isolated at the edge of a small town, somewhere removed from society, running amok at parties in between scenes of lab dissection. There are other elements thrown in — the exploration of sexuality, most notably — which add further resonance to the film, as Garance Marillier’s Justine is led on by her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf). In this particular intersection of sex and gore, the film is reminiscent of Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (though with less Vincent Gallo, thankfully). It looks great, it has a carefully chosen soundtrack, and there are some great trippy shots. Also, can I just add that I love the poster. It’s been all over the London underground for the last month or so, and it’s just the right balance of unsettling and suggestive without being graphic.
Director/Writer Julia Ducournau; Cinematographer Ruben Impens; Starring Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Naït Oufella; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Saturday 15 April 2017.
The title of this Proust adaptation — centred around Simon (Stanislas Merhar, the Marcel character) and his beloved Ariane (Sylvie Testud, based on Albertine) — suggests it is about the woman. But… who is the real captive here? Well, depending on your temperament, possibly not the audience. I’m being unfair, though: I love Akerman’s films, and this one hinges around male obsession and jealousy. It’s very much about him failing to control, and failing to understand, Ariane — or indeed, women in general… or other people in general maybe. He’s a difficult character to watch, and a real jerk in his quiet, devotional way. Lots of long takes add to the atmosphere nicely, even if I’ll always prefer Akerman’s documentaries over her arthouse genre exercises (as I think of this and Almayer’s Folly, no doubt unfairly).
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman (based on La Prisonnière by Marcel Proust); Cinematographer Sabine Lancelin; Starring Sylvie Testud, Stanislas Merhar; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 6 January 2017.
Ramping up to the final weekend, I had my first day of four films on Friday 14 October. All were at least interesting, and some were excellent. All four featured their directors doing a Q&A, though time constraints meant I sadly couldn’t stay for the first one (and the one I’d most have wanted to listen to).
La Permanence (On Call) (2016, France, dir. Alice Diop)
There’s a very simple setup to this documentary: a consulting room at a Parisian hospital visited by a stream of refugees seeking medical attention, one of the few places they can receive such care. The doctor on call patiently deals with the people he sees (supported by a psychiatrist), but the team clearly have access to only limited resources (they even run out of prescription pads at one point). The camera films one side of the table or the other, but it’s the faces that dominate, and we see some return in happier circumstances than their original visit, but this is by no means always the case. It’s clear sighted and quietly powerful about the troubles people have experienced, and the further bureaucratic hoops we require them to jump through.
Le Fils de Joseph (The Son of Joseph) (2016, France/Belgium, dir./wr. Eugène Green, DOP Raphaël O’Byrne)
This latest film is stylistically of a piece with Green’s other work that I’ve seen — which is to say, denaturalised acting, deadpan delivery, frontal framings, aiming for an exaltation of the text over any kind of actorly psychology. If you’re on-board with his project there’s plenty to like here, and a lot that’s quite funny too (my favourite was the utterly self-regarding young author at the start, and Maria de Madeiros’s literary critic tottering into a police standoff clutching a champagne flute). It’s about a young man without a father who is searching for one, manages to loop in a fugitive-on-the-run storyline, and then overlays a Christian allegory as the structuring device. The literary world doesn’t come out looking great, but plenty of the individual shots in the film do.
Dao Khanong (By the Time It Gets Dark) (2016, Thailand/France/Netherlands/Qatar, dir./wr. Anocha Suwichakornpong, DOP Ming-Kai Leung)
When you structure your film to have the logic of a waking dream or a memory flashback — and in this the film shares a lot of the same power as last year’s Cemetery of Splendour by fellow Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul — it can have the unfortunate effect of lulling a viewer who is watching it at one of those awkward times of the evening into a bit of a doze (I’m talking about me). I therefore had the uneasy feeling of not really knowing what was happening and wondering if there was something crucial I had missed in the few minutes I had my eyes shut, but at length I realised that no, this is just the film, and the effect is entirely intentional. It also points up the absurdity of assigning films star ratings, because it looks like I’ve given it a low score, but actually this is probably the film I’d most like to revisit. It has a tricksy looping structure which replays some scenes with different actors, which seems to present its characters’ stories alongside fragments of their memory, dramatic recreations and even music videos, to further confound any easy narrative understanding. There is, though, an intellect at work, questioning historical representation, the play of memory, the ethics of filmmaking, and any number of other subjects. In short, for all its gently undulating rhythms (the sound design emphasises the low hum of machinery, fans, or blowing wind throughout), it represents some pretty exciting filmmaking.
Zin’naariya! (The Wedding Ring) (2016, Niger, dir./wr. Rahmatou Keïta)
Like Laos the other day, Niger is another country you don’t see many films from, given its lack of a film industry, or indeed much in the way of a film culture. So it’s all the more reason to celebrate that not only has a film been made there, it’s directed by a woman, it looks gorgeous, and it was entirely funded by African money. A young woman (played by the director’s daughter) has returned from studying in France, lovelorn over the boyfriend she met there who himself has returned to his homeplace. She retains hopes of marrying him, as her family use whatever means they can to help bring them together — although this largely involves a local mystic who reads the patterns in shells. In truth the story moves along at a fairly unhurried pace, but the actors (not least the lead) do a great job in making the film watchable, and the camera can’t help but find light and colour wherever it looks in this small tightly-knit community. The focus is on the women in the community above all, and their laughter and wisdom keeps the film moving through some slower patches.
Day Three was Friday 7 October, and I saw two films, before getting on a train to Manchester for the weekend. This does sadly mean I missed a director Q&A with the director and two leads of Divines.
Réparer les vivants (Heal the Living) (2016, France/Belgium, dir. Katell Quillévéré, wr. Quillévéré/Gilles Taurand, DOP Tom Harari)
I found this affecting in all kinds of ways, but maybe I’ve just been hanging out for a really great film from this film festival and am seeing what I want to see (it can happen at festivals). That said, I don’t think the cinematic quality of the opening scenes can be denied: lulling you in to a bunch of guys going out early to catch some waves, splashing about, having a good time and then… the film goes in other directions. This happens a few times: new characters are introduced, and you have to figure out how they’ll fit in. It’s a film filled with people not making decisions, putting off telling people things, not being active but just reacting to events that happen to them, and, ultimately, accepting their fate. There’s also a bit of surgery (a lot of the film is set at hospitals) but it’s nicely handled, and anyway this is a film about emotional journeys as much as anything. I think it’s a great film, right now.
Divines (2016, France/Qatar, dir./wr. Houda Benyamina, DOP Julien Poupard)
Here’s what’s great about Divines: it looks beautiful, and the lead actors, especially Oulaya Amamra, are brilliant. Amamra was in a shorter film called Mariam earlier this year that I really liked, and she’s on fire in this. As a film, it has elements that remind me of Bande de filles (Girlhood), and does similar things that I disliked in that film (and in Dheepan too for that matter) in terms of, shall we say, the deployment of generic tropes. So for me it’s… not entirely successful. But I wish its filmmakers and its actors all the best.