Another film which premiered in the Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects online streaming this past month is this one about an Indian singer confronting sexism and prejudice. It’s a forthright film about an outspoken woman, and it documents what appears to be an ongoing struggle.
India is, of course, a huge country, and with that huge population comes an equally diverse range of viewpoints when it comes to women in the media. Or perhaps, it’s not so diverse, since it seems as if patriarchy continues to hold sway. We see the titular character (Sona Mohapatra), a singer in Hindi, often adapting songs from other religious traditions (most notably, Sufism), confront those who would marginalise her. She’s not by any means poor, and is married to a successful producer of Bollywood music, but the film shows her forthrightness in attacking those who would deny women (like her) access to big stages and national prominence. We see her reading out messages from supporters on Instagram alongside e-mails from clerics attacking her, and quotes flash up on-screen from politicians leading the fight against immorality (which in the case of Sona appears to be: shows a bit too much cleavage in her videos). Her outspoken nature seem to get her naturally into trouble, and there are hints towards some #MeToo fights she’s had online which (presumably for legal reasons) aren’t given much time here, but she’s clearly not going to be quiet and that seems like a good thing for society.
Director/Cinematographer Deepti Gupta; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Wednesday 17 June 2020.
Clearly low-budget and shot in black-and-white, this feels like a major title in the development of independent Indian filmmaking, part of India’s own New Wave, in which Mani Kaul was a central figure. It’s a small rural village drama between a handful of characters, but has a power to it that draws on contemporary European figures like Bresson.
I’ve not seen a huge deal of Indian cinema, beyond a few big titles and some contemporary commercial movies, so seeing things like this impresses upon me how huge a range there must be in the country. Uski Roti (variously translated as “Our Daily Bread” and “A Day’s Bread”, and which is variously listed as 1969 and 1970 depending where you look) is barely even narrative-driven, being often composed of a series of brief vignettes of almost Bressonian austerity, as a woman, Balo (Garima), makes food for her husband Sucha Singh (Gurdeep Singh), who drives a bus and only seems to show up very irregularly. In the meantime, we see him playing cards, while stories circulate about him having another woman in another village. The wife’s orbit is the home, where she works alongside her sister (Richa Vyas), who is being pestered by the husband’s brother. Aside from Bresson, the images are reminiscent of the stark village scenes in The Cow, a contemporary film from Iran. Slowly we get a sense of these characters and how their lives are, as the film just lays out these images of village life one after another. Clearly the 60s were a fertile time, and the stark simplicity of this film (a debut film, no less) suggests not just a great talent, but just the tip of the iceberg for filmmaking across the continent.
Director Mani Kaul मणि कौल; Writers Mohan Rakesh मोहन राकेश and Kaul; Cinematographer K.K. Mahajan ਕੇ ਕੇ ਮਹਾਜਨ; Starring Garima, Gurdeep Singh, Richa Vyas; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Tuesday 9 June 2020.
This film is a bit of an oddity, a Bollywood film which takes the form of a sci-fi romance. It’s also the debut film from a woman director, Nitya Mehra, and though it wasn’t a big success, it still has plenty of its own distinct charms I think.
It seems it’s hardly been a critical hit, and to be fair it has plenty of silliness to its premise: that a man with doubts about his future (Sidharth Malhotra) gets to see a version of that future and thereby change his selfish behaviour (all a bit Groundhog Day I guess). However, it’s a multi-generational romance, so I think it’s fair to judge it by what it sets out to be, and I found it to be likeable and charming, even for lapses into occasional sentimentality (the film had earned it). There are sci-fi elements to some of the future settings which are nicely integrated, along with fetching touches (like a bus map suggesting Cambridge is just an outer suburb of London by the mid-21st century). The film uses — if I’m not mistaken — Glasgow for Cambridge, which doesn’t quite work but it’s less egregious than some British location work I’ve seen in other Bollywood films. It also goes through fewer tortuous tonal changes, sticking to its romantic central premise faithfully. All in all, it was sweet.
Director Nitya Mehra नित्या मेहरा; Writers Mehra and Sri Rao श्री राव; Cinematographer Ravi K. Chandran रवि के चन्द्रन; Starring Sidharth Malhotra ਸਿਧਾਰਥ ਮਲਹੋਤਰਾ, Katrina Kaif, Sayani Gupta সায়ানী গুপ্তা; Length 141 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 12 September 2016.
Moving to a rather more obscure Argentine film, a first feature by a young director, which is a documentary but a rather experimental one in form, dealing with the idea of a life and interrogating some of the ways that this person’s life is framed by different voices and authorities.
A strange open-ended documentary about a young man who was shot by the police in a poor suburb of Buenos Aires, this marshals an array of footage — interviews with the mother, police dashboard cameras, dead bodies in a morgue, TV, home video — to present the sense of a place and the idea of a life. The dead young man was a criminal, but he was also his mother’s son, the father to his own child, and a person who had dreams and an upbringing, and part of what the documentary does is just to expand the range of the usual crime procedural documentary to be more about the victim’s entire life, about his surroundings and how he came to be. The interview with the mother is in voiceover as she makes an elaborate birthday cake, again framing the sound of witnesses with the ongoing events of lived experience, and that’s what I take from this film.
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Toia Bonino; Length 65 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 25 November 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.
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.
Another interesting film touching on the African-American experience, is this low-budget indie from 1998 which can be seen online (on the director’s Vimeo channel). It may not be as polished as some of the debut films coming out in cinemas, but it has its own energy.
There’s a lot that’s likeable in this low-budget indie production which I’d heard about back when I was first getting into films in the late-90s but which never reached me in NZ, and largely disappeared after its initial release. It’s on the filmmaker’s Vimeo account in the absence of any screenings, and it fizzes with a sort of foundational energy, of wanting to tell stories about Black women in their own communities that avoid the usual tropes (the ones that were so prevalent in the 90s, certainly). As a background to the action, there’s a hooded attacker attacking other people by night, but it’s not a gang-based thing, it’s just one of many issues touching directly on the lives of the two young women who are at the centre of the story. One (April Barnett) is trying to get away from an abusive relationship and the other (Toby Smith) is chafing against the restrictions of her photography course: she prefers to take polaroids of young Black men, whom she feels are under threat. It’s not perfect, but the performances are really solid and it has a low-key humour that underlines some of its more dramatic reaches.
Director Cauleen Smith; Writers Smith and Salim Akil; Cinematographer Andrew Black; Starring Toby Smith, April Barnett, Will Power; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at home (Vimeo streaming), London, Saturday 28 March 2020.
Last week I focused on female-directed new releases, and this week sees the (online) release of Never Rarely Sometimes Always by Eliza Hittman, a well-reviewed abortion drama from the woman who directed Beach Rats (I’ll get to that later this week). Anyway, this week I’ve decided to focus on a week of American films directed by women. I’ve done films directed by African-American women already, but I’ll kick off with the only film directed by the legendary poet and autobiographer Maya Angelou. In terms of availability, I had to order a DVD (a German one, as it happens) off eBay, but it was pretty cheap.
There’s a lot that’s odd and clunky about this film: it tells a story of a Chicago woman with drug problems who is barely fit to raise a family, rediscovering her roots in Mississippi, finding herself again and uncovering her potential to both change herself and move her own narrative towards redemption and positive change for her community. And if that sounds a little programmatic in its development then it certainly comes across that way watching the film. It’s directed (if not, crucially, written) by the author and poet Maya Angelou, though, so whatever it loses in technical efficiency, it gains a lot in feeling. This is a film, ultimately, that succeeds on the basis of its acting. However simplistic her character arc may be in some respects, Alfre Woodard is a real force and imbues it with a feeling that suggests something far deeper. There’s in general a range of acting talent all of which adds to this drama, and eventually it does get to me. However much I may try to resist, this does have its power and its own peculiar beauty.
Director Maya Angelou; Writer Myron Goble; Cinematographer William Wages; Starring Alfre Woodard, Al Freeman Jr., Esther Rolle, Mary Alice, Wesley Snipes; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 10 April 2020.
The milieu this film sets itself in — a fairly well-heeled boarding school — is hardly new to cinema, but the telling of this tale is distinctive enough that I think there’s a lot of promise in this director (and of course, the cast, most of whom are fairly new faces, though Jharrel Jerome was seen in Moonlight).
Certainly a distinctive debut in the crowded marketplace of high school-set films, though something about the tone feels a little older than that, since it eschews the usual bright poppiness of that milieu for something darker and more reflective. The tone throughout is rather elliptical and with lots of little flashes of details, slightly off-centre close-ups of little tics and expressions, small touches that create an impressionistic sense of this time of life as somehow heightened and laden with feelings that go beyond just what is happening at a plot level. Entire sequences feel rather abstract in some ways, and plot becomes very much a minor part of the film at times, which pushes it into interesting territory that maybe isn’t always fully successful in its realisation but makes it preferable to something boring and safe (which is, to be fair, where most of this genre is pitched). The minor characters too feel a little underdeveloped, with Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) the standout — some of her dialogue felt contrived, but at other times, when she was just quietly observing, she seemed like the most interesting person on-screen. I’ll look forward to the director’s future work.
Director/Writer Tayarisha Poe; Cinematographer Jomo Fray; Starring Lovie Simone, Celeste O’Connor, Jharrel Jerome, Ana Mulvoy-Ten, Gina Torres; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Saturday 18 April 2020.
Usually I do a new release on Fridays, but my theme this week is YouTube movies, and there’s rather a shortage of ‘new’ feature filmmaking (it’s mostly music videos and maybe short films). So here’s another old Australian comedy from the late-1990s, again inspired by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’s Twitter thread. The director of this effort (she doesn’t appear to have any other non-TV directing credits since) wrote the recent film Ride Like a Girl (2019).
A slight if likeable Australian comedy, which I’d struggle to call a ‘coming of age’ exactly as it features a fully-grown protagonist who is trying to lose her virginity. She works in a Melbourne secondhand bookshop, and the film is very good at demonstrating how wrapped up she is in her own inner world — in so far as the (clearly low) budget allows, we get to see all kinds of imagined reveries featuring her various crushes, as they come along. Like a lot of contemporary Australian films of this nature, it’s comedic up until the point that it’s not really anymore, but instead morphs into an exploration of what’s motivating her. The (unnamed) protagonist played by Michaela Noonan has a sharp and ironic sense of humour, a sort of brusque underlying cynicism which her journey throughout the film starts to erode a little bit, to bring out her inner empathy as the film goes on.
Director/Writer Elise McCredie; Cinematographer Jaems Grant; Starring Michaela Noonan; Length 84 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Wednesday 25 March 2020.
I’ve long wanted to watch this highly-regarded blend of documentary and drama by Sara Gómez, a Cuban filmmaker who died at the age of 31 in 1974 before it was completed (it was finished by her collaborators and released some years later), which has been particularly championed by the critic and feminist B. Ruby Rich. However, I got tired to waiting for a restoration (I don’t believe it’s had one, but I may be mistaken) or a cinematic screening so I took to YouTube, where one can find all kinds of marginalia and, so it seems, underseen classics.
Plenty of documentary films now take a self-aware and critical perspective on their own praxis, and it may not have been new in 1974 either when Sara Gomez shot this film, but what distinguishes De cierta manera is an energy undoubtedly harnessing Cuba’s own revolutionary project. Mixing voiceover-led ‘objective’ documentary elements, with vérité sequences shot on streets, but interleaving acted scenes, combining the actors (as fictional characters) with non-actors in unscripted sequences, as well as interpolating musical performance, this is a bold film. It’s about a slum area rebuilt by the government to improve the lives of the marginalised and impoverished communities of colour living there, and expands on this by its staging of a relationship between teacher Yolanda (Cuellar) and worker Mario (Balmaseda), who still clings to a certain machismo but is conscientious in his commitment to revolutionary work, unlike his colleague Humberto. Their story plays out in snippets against the backdrop of the community, its meetings and its daily life, as the film’s narrational strategies fold in class, race and sex as contested sites within the revolution. It’s a minor miracle of a film and it’s not best served by its own marginalisation to a poor 16mm dupe on YouTube. Hopefully someone does a proper restoration and release in future.
Director Sara Gómez [sometimes also credited to Tomás González Pérez]; Writers Gómez, Julio García Espinosa and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea; Cinematographer Luis García; Starring Mario Balmaseda, Yolanda Cuellar; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Thursday 19 January 2017.