The closing night for the Melbourne Women in Film Festival was actually a film from New Zealand, but focusing strongly on diasporan peoples making their home in that country and the challenges that await. It’s as much about creating a future that doesn’t exist, I suppose, as in reflecting some kind of existing multicultural society (as I think NZ is a fair way away from that), but it’s great to see the work on show. I hope some of these filmmakers go on to make their own feature films; I’d love to see them.
I’m not sure this quite hits as hard as the same producers’ earlier portmanteau collections, Waru and Vai, but that’s not to say it’s not great. Indeed, it’s a wonderful tribute to the diversity of filmmaking culture in Aotearoa — or at least, potential filmmaking culture, as I don’t think the small number of films that the country makes each year really fully embraces that yet, but I certainly wish it would. Whereas the previous film Vai went to locations around the Pacific Islands to find stories that were united through the focus on the water, on the connective threads between them, Kāinga is grounded (literally) in the soil of a single home in Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland, specifically the southern suburb of Māngere.
The film is split into eight segments moving through the years, taking in each decade from the 1970s onwards, before moving forward in shorter increments, as families from different ethnicities move in, the changes in the families and the changes in the home tracking the changes in society, in aspirations and expectations, and the way that things come full circle. It’s about an idea of New Zealand that I still don’t think is fully part of society there, but is something I think it is working towards a bit better than some other countries (albeit haltingly, as we perceive a little in a later segment of the film, where the home is owned by a racist pākehā couple), of embracing cultural difference as a generative source, and a positive one, but it’s comforting to see it in film.
Not all the individual segments fully work on their own (as is natural for any film of this nature), but the vision is consistent, the work of the set designers and actors and all the filmmakers is impressive in just getting it done (all these 10-minute unbroken takes is a flex, carried over from Waru), and most of all it’s a model and an inspiration, I hope, for future indigenous and pan-Asian filmmaking.
Directors Michelle Ang, Ghazaleh Golbakhsh غزاله گلبخش, Nahyeon Lee, Angeline Loo, Hash Perambalan [as “HASH”], Asuka Sylvie, Yamin Tun and Julie Zhu 朱常榛; Writers Shreya Gejji, Golbakhsh, Mei-Lin Te Puea Hansen, HASH, Lee, Loo, Mia Maramara and Sylvie; Cinematographer Drew Sturge; Starring Mya Williamson, Izumi Sugihara, Patricia Senocbit, Eliana Hwang, Sneha Shetty, Masoumeh Hesam Mahmoudinezhad, Dharshi Ponnampalam, Katlyn Wong; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at ACMI, Melbourne, Monday 27 February 2022.
Another film festival I attended in February, my first month in Melbourne, was one with a thematic focus a little closer to home than the Europa! Europa Film Festival, namely the Melbourne Women in Film Festival. It was, I gather, the seventh edition, and it’s not a big festival — there were only a handful of films, along with the screening of an old Clara Law film (itself hived off from a larger celebration of Law’s work that’s been screening over the last few weeks), and a couple of programmes of shorts as well as workshops and discussions. I only attended the opening and closing night films, but both came with unexpected (to me, because I hadn’t read the website closely) free drinks, and a generally celebratory atmosphere which is always welcome! Long may the festival continue.
Focusing on a young First Nations woman, Murra (Shantae Barnes-Cowan), who has been let down by her family — most immediately her drug-using and wildly erratic mother — Sweet As blossoms into a really wholesome film that I certainly hope connects with the right audiences. Murra finds herself pushed into going on a group trip with other troubled kids, where they are encouraged to discover their voices via old-fashioned film cameras that one of the guides, an enthusiastic Nicaraguan guy (Carlos Sanson Jr), is particularly keen on. Naturally this idea of photography as a way into taking control of one’s own story means the pressure is on the film’s cinematographer to capture something beautiful, and there’s definitely a sense of some tourist board-approved visuals here, though I suppose you don’t have to work hard in this bit of Western Australia to find something stunning to photograph. The core of the story, though, remains focused on Murra and the way she first resists and ultimately bonds with the others on the trip, as a sort of coming of age road trip. Perhaps it does all feel a little bit soft pedalled (and it fits rather neatly into a familiar generic framework), but this is ultimately a very hopeful film about restoring connections with other people and with the natural world.
Director Jub Clerc; Writers Clerc and Steve Rodgers; Cinematographer Katie Milwright; Starring Shantae Barnes-Cowan, Pedrea Jackson, Mikayla Levy, Carlos Sanson Jr, Ngaire Pigram; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at ACMI, Melbourne, Thursday 23 February 2022.
The fourth film I saw at the Europa! Europa Film Festival was the one I had heard a little about (and is from the German-French-Iranian director of 3 Days in Quiberon), but it turned out to be the one I liked the least. However! It is very much a film for Vicky Krieps to further blossom into the grand actress of European cinema that she has threatened to become the last few years. She really is one of the best.
For a film that could easily be a disease-of-the-week mawkish tearfest made for TV, this drama about a woman dying of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis steers clear of a lot of the particular pitfalls of that genre, though it can never entirely escape it. However, it’s about the way that Hélène (Vicky Krieps) come to terms with her future, such as it is, and the way she has to hurt the ones she loves in order to protect both herself and them. Of course, it comes inbuilt with its own terrible additional layer of heartwrenching irony, in that it’s the film’s co-star Gaspard Ulliel (playing Hélène’s husband Matthieu) who died in real life shortly after this film was made. If Krieps reminds me a bit of Julianne Moore, it’s only because she’s every bit as fine an actor as Moore (who hasn’t shied away from similar roles), and indeed has become one of the more dependable European actors in recent years (whether in films like Bergman Island, Corsage or of course the fine-toned comedy Phantom Thread).
Director Emily Atef; Writers Atef and Lars Hubrich; Cinematographer Yves Cape; Starring Vicky Krieps, Gaspard Ulliel, Bjørn Floberg; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at the Classic, Melbourne, Sunday 26 February 2022.
Another excellent film I saw at the Europa! Europa Film Festival was this film about a young woman who doesn’t care to take part in society (which is a good and convenient characteristic to have when you’re presumably filming during a pandemic, but I think says a bit more generationally and as a response to the world).
The thing I’ve found in tending to go only to films by women directors in any given selection of film festival films (for want of any other way of narrowing down a list of films I’ve never heard of and may never see again), is that you get to see a range of responses to familiar genres. The subgenre of films about young women who just don’t give a f*ck, often deploying deadpan humour and absurdist premises, is thankfully expanding, and this film reminded me a little of the Spanish film El Planeta or the Korean film Heart, both with “unlikeable” protagonists who are actually compelling in their resistance to narrative expectations. Perhaps there’s also a slight hint of Wes Anderson too in the frontal shooting style and shot-reverse shot dialogue sequences that are so striking and can’t help but imbue a certain humour just in their style, even if the characters are undemonstrative. It makes a nice change, too, from a lot of Italian cinema that I’ve seen that tends towards operatic melodrama, and while there’s certainly a fair bit of shouting and bad behaviour here, I’m left with the sense of disconnectedness from society, a sadness or depression even that its title character is trying to resist. It’s an ongoing process for her, so the film just sort of stops mid-shot, which makes some sense; I hope Amanda is doing well, though it probably doesn’t hurt that she looks a bit like Alison Brie (everyone is rich and glamorous here, and her friend’s home is a terrifying palace to brutalist modernity).
Director/Writer Carolina Cavalli; Cinematographer Lorenzo Levrini; Starring Benedetta Porcaroli, Galatéa Bellugi; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at the Lido, Melbourne, Friday 17 February 2022.
When looking at a catalogue of films such as that for the Europa! Europa Film Festival, where almost every title is entirely unknown to me, and even most of the directors and stars aren’t ringing any bells, you may wonder, how do you select what films to go see? I’d like to say it was because they won awards (like this one, which won the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes last year), but no, it’s not usually that. Obviously if they have had any critical response I do take that into account but for the most part, I don’t know the films, I look them up, and then I go to the ones directed by women or indigenous filmmakers because it’s a way to narrow down a long list of films I know nothing about. And for the most part, you get good results; this one is no exception.
Films about filmmaking are a really pretty familiar topic to any festivalgoer or even casual watcher of movies, because there’s no story filmmakers like to tell more than their own one (I mean, write about what you know is a cliché for a reason). The focus here is on the kids who have been roped into the director’s vision, which appears to be some kind of Kes-like vision of a working class life, particularly Lily and the younger boy Ryan, who play siblings in the film-within-the-film. It takes a little time to get going, but ultimately there’s quite a nuanced take on what’s going on: the film’s director alternately feels like a tyrant, having childish fits of anger on set at his (child) actors’ lack of commitment to the emotion, then a slightly creepy guy setting up a sex scene involving the teenage Lily, and ultimately as a man with quite a complex layered emotional emptiness at his heart who is fairly open about it when talking to Ryan. The young actors have their own struggles with their colleagues, schoolkids and the townspeople, and as it goes on there’s plenty of lowkey angst, but it’s relatable and understandable, and never overwhelms the story. This film won the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 2022, and I think it’s a strong choice.
Directors Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret; Writers Akoka, Gueret and Elénore Gurrey; Cinematographer Eric Dumont; Starring Mallory Wanecque, Timéo Mahaut, Johan Heldenbergh; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at the Classic, Melbourne, Sunday 26 February 2022.
Since moving to Melbourne at the start of February, I’ve already been to films at a couple of small film festivals, so I thought I might cover those this week. One of the festivals was the Europa! Europa Film Festival, which runs in a couple of related (but I believe independent) cinemas in the Melbourne suburbs, the Lido and the Classic. It was a good excuse to visit both these areas and their fine cinemas, which are both very pleasant multi-screen environments, and if I lived closer to either Hawthorn or Elsternwick I’d definitely visit again. The festival itself presents a number of titles from the past few years that haven’t had much of a media profile, the kind of thing that you see at these festivals and then more or less disappear completely, which is a shame because all the films I saw had plenty to recommend them, not least this Catalan film by a woman filmmaker about some men on the job.
This Catalan-language film is made entirely with non-professional actors (the characters have the same first names as the actors), making it all the easier to imagine them as actual handymen, fixing plumbing and electrical issues across the city. Focusing on men with this career is a canny way to incorporate a range of social milieu, whether an upmarket studio, a wealthy home and a flashy kitchen showroom, or the rather dowdier and more lived-in small apartments of the city, with an old man who is keen to let people know about his health regimen, or a home with a harassed father and two impish daughters. There’s no real big plot to speak of, aside from that it’s Moha (Mellali)’s first week with the group, as the older man who runs the company (Pep Sarrà) is retiring; his colleague Valero (Escolar), however, is an aggressively annoying man who is quickly and unthinkingly racist towards Moha and it takes much of the film for him to soften his attitude. Indeed, he’s such an unpleasant bully of a man that it’s difficult to watch what is otherwise a sweet, very low-key film, but the director does her best to keep things moving along with a minimum of fuss and no over-explication of the themes.
Director Neus Ballús; Writers Ballús and Margarita Melgar; Cinematographer Anna Molins; Starring Valero Escolar, Mohamed Mellali, Pep Sarrà; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at the Lido, Melbourne, Friday 17 February 2022.
The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. There aren’t too many animated films in there, because I don’t go to so many of those anymore, which it turns out is fine because Disney is barely making an effort to get them into cinemas, so most need to be watched via their streaming service. Hence this one, which I gave a shot to because it seemed to come from a more interesting perspective than fairytale princesses, and it is indeed very lovely.
It’s somewhat sad to me that Pixar films are so rarely nowadays shown in cinemas, because the attention to detail in the design and the animation that shows in films like this, or the previous year’s Soul, deserve the big screen but instead we have to subscribe to Disney+, which somehow lessens them. It also leads to factoids like it being the biggest money loser for a cinematic release (even though I’m fairly certain it was barely placed in any cinemas worldwide).
However, Turning Red still strikes me as one of the better recent crop of animated films, which both tells a discernable story from a specific perspective (a young girl from a Chinese background growing up in Toronto, voiced by Rosalie Chiang), but makes it both metaphorically rich and also cartoonishly cute at the same time. A lot of elements feel familiar from any coming of age/high school American movie, with its cliques of friends and confected schoolyard drama, but there’s a real strength to its focus on the setting, the details of the family temple such that even the supernatural plot twist (and I think the posters and marketing make it fairly clear that a large anthropomorphic red panda is involved) feels grounded in an authentic expression of familial ties and Chinese-Canadian culture.
Director Domee Shi 石之予; Writers Julia Cho, Shi and Sarah Streicher; Cinematographers Mahyar Abousaeedi and Jonathan Pytko; Starring Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh 오미주, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Ava Morse, James Hong 吳漢章; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Disney+ streaming), Wellington, 2 July 2022.
The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. This big historical action epic comes from the very dependable Gina Prince-Bythewood, one of the better directors working in Hollywood, and it’s a powerful evocation of an era not much seen on screen.
Just to kick things off: I really enjoyed this movie, especially as a big screen cinematic experience. It has an old-fashioned sense of an historical epic, albeit about a little corner of African history that isn’t often represented on-screen (primarily because it doesn’t revolve around white heroes or saviours, and surely the time for patriotic stories of European conquests over tribal peoples has long since passed). But it’s curious that this African story is written by two white women; given the other talent involved I don’t think that meaningfully invalidates any positive representation the film can provide, but it might give a hint as to the way in which the film tends towards a platitudinous Hollywood liberal sense of injustice being righted, as Viola Davis leads her Agojie (the so-called “Dahomey Amazons”) as a righteous force dedicated to eradicating slavery.
Clearly there are experts in this history — of which I am not one, nor are many of the online commentators peddling the criticisms to be fair — who acknowledge that the situation was more complicated than it’s portrayed here. Just my cursory awareness of our modern online world leads me to the understanding that it’s perfectly possible for groups of women to come together to actively promote and defend patriarchal systems of oppression, fascism and hate speech. The film doesn’t deny that the Dahomeys were just as involved in slavery as their enemies, the Oyo Empire. So the feel-good roles of Davis as Nanisca, her second-in-command Izogie (the brilliant Lashana Lynch) and young recruit Nawi (an impressive Thuso Mbedu) may not quite reflect real history, but that’s fine by me because this is primarily a film and an entertainment that hopefully leads people to learn more about this historical time and context.
However, whatever your caveats, it’s undeniably a well put-together epic with the appropriate levels of heart-tugging sentiment and brutal warfare action scenes. Gina Prince-Bythewood has come a long way from Love & Basketball and that sweetly saccharine film The Secret Life of Bees with one of the Fannings in it. She made the fantastic Beyond the Lights and her recent foray into action with The Old Guard was the rare superhero film I actively enjoyed, and so she is not short of directing skill, nor is her team lacking in their ability to both capture the location and people (cinematographer Polly Morgan), or the nuances of the acting — and this in particular seems like quite a departure in the type of role Viola Davis is usually seen in, and she surely deserves some awards love for it. There may be all kinds of ways to criticise it, but I admire any film that tries to tell a bit of history we’ve not seen played out before.
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood; Writers Dana Stevens and Maria Bello; Cinematographer Polly Morgan; Starring Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, John Boyega; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Thursday 3 November 2022.
I’m working through fuller reviews from my list of favourite films of 2022 (here) but among them are a few that I wasn’t expecting, like this gentle, lilting Kiarostami riff in the fig orchards (rather than olives), structured as a series of two-handers between various characters over the course of a couple of working days (or maybe it’s just one, I can’t quite recall). In any case, a fine film with a predominantly woman-centric cast and crew.
This is a rather gentle film with some darker undertones as a group of (primarily) young women come together picking figs in an orchard, or at least I’d say that was the focus of the film, whose single setting means this functions as a sort of chamber drama. Indeed, the group of pickers includes some older women and men, who have a choral role to play, singing and commenting on the kids’ actions, and some young men of various types, including a rather sleazy and opportunistic boss. Throughout the day various pairings of these characters get together and hash things out, and while there is no big reveal or drama to speak of, a number of smaller stories play out in a naturalistic way. It’s all very lovely, though you’ll need to take a moment to get into its rhythms, in a setting — and with a title — suggestive of some Kiarostami films, though this is Tunisian (not Iranian).
Director Erige Sehiri أريج السحيري; Writers Sehiri, Ghalya Lacroix غالية لاكروا and Peggy Hamann بيجي هامان; Cinematographer Frida Marzouk فريدا مرزوق; Starring Fidé Fdhili فداء الفضيلي, Feten Fdhili فاتن الفضيلي, Ameni Fdhili أماني الفضيلي; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at the Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 30 October 2022.
The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. I recently covered Lena Dunham’s breakthrough feature film Tiny Furniture in my Criterion Sunday supplement (which led to her getting the Girls TV show), and in some ways she still struggles as an artist with growing up. Hence we get this feature in which she really throws herself into childhood, but with a middle ages twist, and it’s rather sweet really: almost brutal when it needs to be, but never really getting bogged down in the filth, at least not too much.
Lena Dunham directed (and wrote and produced) this adaptation of a young adult novel, but she isn’t in it at all, which is something worth pointing out to the sadly numerous anti-fans of hers. And though it may seem quite different from artsy studenty metropolitan lives, perhaps its mediæval setting isn’t so far removed from that spirit of creative jouissance she usually tries to cultivate. It’s certainly not far from the darker and more depressive concerns because for all its lightness of touch, quirky colour and spirited performances, there’s an underlying grimness to life itself which haunts the film. Of course the key is that for the most part the characters don’t dwell on this (perhaps because it’s something they can never escape), but it adds something grounding to what could otherwise come across as altogether too twee. There are memorable turns from all kinds of supporting actors, not least Andrew Scott (unsurprisingly) as Birdy’s father, or Paul Kaye as “Shaggy Beard” (some kind of Yorkshire nouveau riche), as well as from Bella Ramsey in the lead role who gets across her childish energy as she is thrust into an altogether more adult world (or rather, perhaps there is no such distinction; certainly there was no concept of being a teenager, and that’s part of what the film gets across well: you’re a child until you’re not).
Director/Writer Lena Dunham (based on the novel by Karen Cushman); Cinematographer Laurie Rose; Starring Bella Ramsey, Andrew Scott, Billie Piper, Lesley Sharp, Joe Alwyn, Sophie Okonedo; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), Wellington, Thursday 20 October 2022.