Colectiv (Collective, 2019)

Last week I started a themed week around new(ish) releases I saw in the cinema, but then halfway through the week I got distracted by a new job, and you know, where does all the time go? So I forgot to post for the last few days, meaning I’m going to pick up again this week, starting with a recent Oscar-nominated best documentary film from Romania.


There are a few stories swirling around in this Romanian documentary, like the one it takes its name from, and where it effectively starts: the tragedy that saw the Colectiv nightclub burn down in Bucharest to great loss of life. However, this is probably of least interest to the film (we don’t learn why it happened, nor who was responsible, largely because I imagine the details are fairly banal, and there have been a number of cases of this kind of fire even in recent decades). That the fire led to the fall of the government is also covered in the opening text scrawl. No, this documentary swiftly becomes about why so many died in the aftermath of the fire, even with relatively minor burns compared to some who survived. It’s a story of government corruption around the building, management and supply of hospitals, and while a few individuals lose their jobs, it’s also fairly clear by the end that wider accountability is still to be delivered. After all, the party which was in power during the time of the fire, and whose corruption is at the heart of the allegations, was voted back into power within a year.

Where the early part of the film focuses on the journalistic investigations (by a sports daily, no less, such is the state of the country’s journalism), it later moves to focusing on the youthful new Minister of Health, whose behind-the-scenes efforts to deal with widespread corruption are quickly spun by the state media, and who you feel surprised is even trying to do good by the end, such are the forces arrayed against him. This is all captured by the filmmaker, who focuses on little details to draw out some of the ironies of the situations, contrasting it with a background story about one of the survivors of the fire trying to rebuild her life. It’s hard to respond to the film without a sigh of cynicism about politicians and corruption (it’s hardly the only country to have failed to levy accountability after a disastrous fire caused by lax health or building standards), but it’s heartening (a little bit) to see a few people who do still care about trying to change things, and that’s what I am trying to carry away from this film.

Colectiv (Collective, 2019)CREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Alexander Nanau; Writers Nanau and Antoaneta Opriș; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 28 March 2021.

Global Cinema 26: Bulgaria – Sofia’s Last Ambulance (2012)

The Eastern European country of Bulgaria has a rather smaller film culture than some of its neighbours, though it still can boast a number of prominent international features, most notably The Lesson (2014) along with other films by its directors Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov. The film I’m focusing on here is a documentary, which suggests the Bulgarian economy is still in a period of post-Soviet recovery.


Bulgarian flagRepublic of Bulgaria (България)
population 6,951,000 | capital Sofia (София) (1.2m) | largest cities Sofia, Plovdiv (Пловдив) (338k), Varna (Варна) (335k), Burgas (Бургас) (200k), Ruse (Русе) (150k) | area 110,994 km2 | religion Bulgarian Orthodox Christianity (60%), none (9%), Islam (8%) | official language Bulgarian (български) | major ethnicity Bulgarian (85%), Turk (9%) | currency Lev лев (лв.) [BGN] | internet .bg

A country in southeast Europe that lies on the Black Sea, and is bordered by Romania, Serbia, North Macedonia, Greece and Turkey. The name derives from the Bulgars, a Turkic tribe which founded the country, and which itself may be derived from a proto-Turkic word for “revolt” (bulgak), suggesting a troublemaking people. Neanderthal remains date back to the Middle Paleolithic period, and the Neolithic society of the Karanovo arose around 6500 BCE, succeeded by the Varna culture, known for their gold metallurgy. Thracians arrived in the 12th century BCE, conquered in turn by the Persian Achaemenids in the 6th century BCE; a resurgence of Thracian unity was put paid to by first the Celts and then the Romans, who made it a province in 45 CE, and were succeeded by the Byzantines and then nomadic Slavic tribes. The First Bulgarian Empire was proclaimed in 681 CE, bringing in a written code of law and then Christianity in the mid-9th century (it had been around the region for a few centuries by that point). The Byzantines took back control in 1014, but an uprising formed the Second Bulgarian Empire in 1185. It disintegrated a few centuries later, to be conquered by the Ottomans in the 14th century, waning until the point of an uprising in 1876. With Russian help, an autonomous Bulgarian principality was signed into existence on 3 March 1878 (though this was rejected by the other Great Powers, and a subsequent treaty in July set out a smaller state); independence was proclaimed in 1908. A tumultuous political period saw it pulled between German and Russian influence, eventually falling under the Soviets after World War II, led by Todor Zhivkov for much of this period. The first free elections came in 1990, and the country is now led by a Prime Minister with a weaker Presidential role.

The first Bulgarian film dates back to 1910, and although there was some production early on, it was severely curtailed by World War II. There has been a bit of resurgence in Bulgarian film production, with a number of feature films and documentaries produced each year, and around 226 cinemas in the country. Sofia also hosts an international film festival.


Последната линейка на София Poslednata lineika na Sofia (Sofia’s Last Ambulance, 2012)

There’s a creeping sense of inevitable doom to this documentary about a single Bulgarian ambulance crew, dealing as it does with a medical system at the end of its tether, chronic underinvestment meaning this is one of the only ambulances left servicing the city. Without leaving the vehicle very much (we see the crew attend to a few cases, but never see those they’re helping, and there are few enough shots even from the front window), we get a picture of the many frustrations they face — faulty equipment, operators unwilling or unable to take their calls or give instructions, potholed roads, police who pull them out to the middle of nowhere to attend a long-dead woman, drivers who crash stupidly into them. It’d be funny if it weren’t life-or-death, but the crew have a grumbling sense of humour, while putting away plenty of cigarettes. Don’t get sick in Sofia.

Sofia's Last Ambulance film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Ilian Metev Илиян Метев; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 12 December 2016.

Bayang Ina Mo (Motherland, 2017)

A film about an enormous maternity hospital in Manila, it doesn’t take long to realise how crowded things are when you see expectant mothers rolled on to the edges of beds already occupied, even playing with their babies two to a bed as well. Indeed, by the end we see the hospital celebrating the birth of the 100 millionth Filipino, and you get a sense that a fair few of them have come through here. The lack of funds means those with weak babies — which is the area of the hospital this film largely focuses on — don’t get incubators but are instead encouraged to wear tube tops to hold their babies close to them as part of the ‘kangaroo medical care’ programme. The women are admonished for not using them 24/7, while a nurse on a microphone at the end of the ward dispenses life advice like a Greek chorus. From out of this chaos the film starts to introduce individual stories and eventually we get to know the situations of a few of the (very poor, very Catholic) women, some of whom are very young, others of whom have five or more kids already. We see them turn down free contraception for frustratingly vague (but obviously religious) reasons, and we see the struggle to come up with even the very small fees being charged, though some of them at least have supportive husbands who are allowed to visit briefly and get to wear the tube tops as well. Like the best documentaries it’s a fascinating look into a world most of us won’t see and it’s a compassionate one too.

CREDITS
Director Ramona S. Diaz; Cinematographers Clarissa delos Reyes and Nadia Hallgren; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Monday 7 August 2017.

LFF 2016 Day Ten: On Call, The Son of Joseph, By the Time It Gets Dark and The Wedding Ring (all 2016)

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)

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)

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)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)

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.

LFF 2016 Day Three: Heal the Living and Divines (both 2016)

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)

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.

Seven Songs for a Long Life (2015)

I would stop short of calling this documentary set in a Scottish hospice a ‘feel good film about dying’ but that’s what it amounts to, after a fashion. The patients are all diagnosed with terminal illnesses (though some rare cases do recover), so the hospice is dedicated to providing palliative care. There’s probably no good way to get through this, so the film’s focus on music as one way is quite fruitful. Throughout we see the patients involved in singing and performing, across a range of musical styles, whether on stage or to themselves (and the camera, obviously). There’s an easy bond between patients and staff, and a general sense of people trying to get through the bleakness of their situations, using music and self-deprecating humour, something that seems to come easily to the hardy Scottish people who take centre stage. Ultimately, Seven Songs for a Long Life is not nearly as sentimentally manipulative as one might expect, but simply well observed and keenly felt.

Seven Songs for a Long Life film posterCREDITS
Director Amy Hardie; Cinematographers Hardie and Julian Schwanitz; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Tuesday 20 October 2015.