My first day of four films was day five of the festival, which I started with an archive screening of a new restoration of Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity, with an alternative ending sequence thrown in at the end (wisely ditched from the original film in my opinion), then a new British film introduced by its director, a Tunisian-French co-production with a star more familiar with French cinema, and finally the last screening of Rose Plays Julie, part of the official competition, and a striking Irish film which bristles with technical sophistication.
Born in Argentina in 1966, Lucrecia Martel had a typically Catholic upbringing for the region, albeit such that she only enrolled in an ultra-Catholic school in order to study ancient languages. There she excelled in science and had intended further study in zoology, and even dabbled in farming, but was drawn into more practical studies in consideration of making a living, and bit by bit was drawn into filmmaking, in which occupation she was largely self-taught. She made short films and some documentaries for television during the 1990s, and has made only four feature films for cinema, but already in that time she has proven a keen eye for framing, and a laconic way of drawing out a story. Indeed, after bursting onto the international scene with La Ciénaga in 2001, she has been a model for successive Latin American women directors, if not for an entire strand of arthouse film production. Her films are not immediately accessible, and perhaps that explains her slow output (and the dizzying array of producers and sources of money her films sometimes list), but she also crafts them all very deliberately so perhaps the waits are worthwhile.
I’ve now had a week of Arabic language cinema, with several examples from the small country of Lebanon, where director Nadine Labaki has made a number of films to increasing critical notice starting with the likeable Caramel (2007). Now her latest film Capernaum (referencing ancient Palestine in the Bible, but focusing on Syrian refugees) is apparently the highest-grossing Middle Eastern film ever, so I could hardly omit it this week. I visited the country in 2017 and found it to be both beautiful and also enormously varied, with many different people living in close quarters, not least the huge number of Syrian refugees whom you can’t help but see everywhere (whether the refugee camps dotted across the valleys, or the homeless beggars on the streets of Beirut). When it came out, I remember reading some savagely negative reviews of the film, but equally I’ve seen a lot of praise, so I feel conflicted, and can understand the arguments on both sides.
I don’t exactly know how to feel about this film, though I know exactly how the director wants me to think, because it’s not exactly subtle. That said, perhaps there’s a case that subtlety is beside the point when you’re looking at the state of being a refugee (or the children of one), about being dehumanised by government decrees and forced into ghettoes, separated from parents with no legal recourse, having almost no opportunities and thus a ripe target for exploitation: perhaps that’s the kind of attitude that history has already taught us leads to the greatest horrors, and whatever creative strategy can be deployed should be applauded.
I don’t know this kind of life, of course, but this film seems to delight in presenting the most abject and dehumanising experiences and serving it up for our entertainment. I hope it changes minds and policies, because it must have been difficult to repeatedly force children to act through what’s shown here, even if it reflects something of some of their real lives. There are compensations: the central performance of young Zaid (Zaid Al Rafeea) is excellent, not precocious or cute, but just the right level of gritty determination butting up against the reality of what he can possibly hope to achieve as such a young person, not to mention the Ethiopian woman who plays Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who is also brilliant. But the picaresque narrative as Zaid bounces around various inadequate situations is constantly interrupted by a court case in which the kid is suing his parents for being born, which feels like a very self-consciously filmic framing device rather than something from lived experience, more like a crutch for the plot.
For all this, I admire much of the filmmaking craft, even if I feel conflicted about the way it’s used. Perhaps I’m being unfair: this is undoubtedly an angry film about a topic (children in peril) that inspires righteous fury, as it does in me when I think about it, about the plight of so many young people in such a small and under-equipped country as Lebanon, and about the dangerous futures for them, for their (new) country, for the region. I just didn’t always feel like this film was the best way of presenting it, and I felt somewhat similarly about, for example, Dheepan, but then again I’ve also just had a quick look at other online responses and I see a lot of love (and also a lot of defensive reactions against opinions apparently not a million miles from my own), so I’m willing to concede I’m misjudging it.
Director Nadine Labaki نادين لبكي; Writers Labaki, Jihad Hojaily جهاد حجيلي and Michelle Keserwany ميشيل كيسرواني; Cinematographer Christopher Aoun; Starring Zain Al Rafeea زين الرافعي, Yordanos Shiferaw يوردانوس شيفراو; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 24 February 2019.
With the rather slender excuse that there’s a documentary about Gaza out in British cinemas today, I’ve been doing a week of Arabic language cinema over here on this blog, for which I’ve featured films from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt (both old and new), Palestine and Lebanon. I always focus on a new release on Friday, so I’m featuring this film which screened at last year’s London Film Festival. Syria is a country with a long, rich history, which these days is far more often the focus of news reporting thanks to its Civil War that has raged for the past decade. The condition of life in that country is still only a small subject in cinema, which is why accounts such as that of the French-born Syrian director Soudade Kaadan are so welcome.
There’s a magical realist element to this tale of ordinary survival during wartime in Syria — that’s what the title is referring to, the way that people’s shadows just disappear at times of crisis. It’s an attempt by the director to metaphorically grapple with concepts that are perhaps too big to really convey on film — the enormous stresses that wars can inflict on a civilian population (and somewhat recalling the recent Iranian-British film Under the Shadow). That said, I think that was probably the element that worked least well for me in what is otherwise a very capably-crafted tale of quotidian struggle, as Sana (Sawsan Arsheed), a woman looking for gas to cook food for her young son, finds herself bundled up in a car with some others in the same situation, which then ends up hurtling through armed checkpoints into the countryside, whence she must make the trip back to the city.
It’s these small details of keeping a life going when bombs and guns are going off around you — looking for gas and food, hoping the water stays on long enough to wash your clothes, and the desperation just these simple things provoke — that are most effective in conveying the situation. The quest narrative added on top of that makes literal the long trudging journeys that scarcity requires, giving a sense of what every day must be like. And so the disappearing shadows are just an extra element, though they give a sense of poetry and mystery to what is, sadly, a very unpoetic life.
Director/Writer Soudade Kaadan سؤدد كعدان; Cinematographer Éric Devin; Starring Sawsan Arsheed سوسن أرشيد, Reham Al Kassar ريهام الكسار, Samer Ismael سامر إسماعيل; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Monday 15 October 2018.
Like so many in the region, Libya is a country with a troubled recent history, and so there has been little filmmaking as such from there. The documentary I cover in the review below is therefore primarily a British production by a British woman director (whose father was from Libya), and takes an unusual subject matter: women involved in sport. In that respect, it recalls for me the recent Canadian-Palestinian documentary Speed Sisters (2015).
Like a lot of documentaries this was a labour of love over many years with a lot of disparate sources of funding, but it remains a portrait of modern Libya as told through the stories of women on a Libyan football team (not really the national squad, exactly, because there’s little enough recognition for women’s football, but they might as well be). The strength of the movie — again like a lot of documentaries — is in its subjects, who come from a broad range of backgrounds, from well-educated middle-class daughters of prominent conservative families, to ones from various parts of the country covering differing ethnicities and backgrounds. One even hails from what is now a ghost town, from which its entire population was displaced due to conflict.
They are united by sport, perhaps, but maybe more by the desire for a different future, and of course we see a bit of the country’s political turmoil in the background — online images of conservative clerics, news footage of fighting and fires and revolutionary change — while the intertitles date the footage from the “Libyan revolution” (in this case, the civil war of 2011), but the film remains focused on the women. They express themselves on the field, and in rides with the director in their cars, where they sing along and eat ice cream and generally get to speak out more freely. That’s perhaps part of what the title is alluding to: this isn’t just about football (in fact, it’s not until quite late in the film that we get to see them actually competing), but about women’s liberation more generally, a struggle that’s ever continuing, especially in Libya.
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Naziha Arebi نزيهة عريبي; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 11 October 2018.
Lebanon is one of the most stable countries in the Middle East (although it certainly hasn’t always been that way) and one of the most politically progressive. It is a country with a wide range of religious practices and ways of living, despite its small size, and it’s perhaps no surprise that a number of women have been involved in filmmaking in the country (for example, Jocelyn Saab, who recently died, was a pioneer back in the 1970s). Lebanon’s troubled recent history forms the basis of the two documentaries I review below, both directed by women, and both made in 2017.
I was actually in Beirut and Lebanon the week this was released in UK cinemas (well, in one cinema), and I can attest to the fact it’s a very small country — we did some travelling within the country and it only takes a few hours to drive across the width of the country, through the fertile Bekaa Valley towards the Syrian border (there are some very beautiful Roman ruins at Baalbek), and it can’t be that much longer north to south. It is also, not just relatively but by most measures, a very peaceful country.
Prior to the war in Syria, it had somewhere around 4-4.5 million people, with a fairly even mix of religions, but now there’s fully a third more just of Syrian refugees, most of them Muslim. Everywhere you go, you can clearly see these encampments, and Lebanese resources are stretched thin dealing with the issue. It’s not of course just Lebanon’s problem, though, and there’s one European aid worker in the film (Fritz) who is very clear about the way that the western governments (who have done little to mitigate the effects of war in Syria, and much to fuel it) are largely derelict in their duty of care to those displaced.
What Lost in Lebanon does is to humanise the issue through focusing on a handful of those displaced from neighbouring Syria. It’s not all gloomy — they are all trying their best to help their fellow refugees, to get involved with educating the children, and trying to find a diplomatic solution and a way to keep improving facilities — but the film captures very well the frustration, the sadness and even, at times, the rage. Nobody wants to live away from their home, especially when it’s so close you can practically see it at times, and certainly not as a virtual prisoner within another country, unable to move around or take a job or get further education or improve your situation. That said, the people in this film do their best to present a vision of relative normalcy in what is an unfortunate situation, and one can only hope that one day Syria will return to stability and peace, and that the people here are able to be involved in its rebuilding.
Directors Georgia Scott and Sophia Scott; Cinematographer Sophia Scott; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Thursday 1 June 2017.
I love films about immigrant experiences, as they render tangible how a person encounters another society and negotiates their place within it (a feeling that I can relate to, in however limited a way) — and the outside perspective can provide real insights into the society under discussion, in this film no less. Parisienne (or “fear of nothing” in its original French title) is about Lina (played by radiant newcomer Manal Issa), who has moved from Beirut to Paris in 1993 — this, it turns out, is a period film, with requisite careful detail of fashion and music (and it seems the director was really into Frank Black back then). Lina is dealing with a volatile family situation and responds by throwing herself into her studies, not to mention a succession of somewhat interchangeable French boyfriends. In this respect, I really like the way the director Danielle Arbid sets up unequal relationships of power for her teenage protagonist, in some ways the core of the film’s characterisation — from early scenes as she fights off the untoward attentions of her uncle, to these entitled, slightly older, white guys (including Vincent Lacoste), most of them well meaning, but just unrelenting in their insistence; there’s a sublimated violence to their advances that’s nicely brought out (I don’t know whether on purpose but it seemed to be there).
At a narrative level, the film is somewhat meandering, and the camera echoes this at a formal level, being given to wandering off, or cutting in close-ups of gesture and set decoration. If at times it feels like there’s no real message exactly, then that is surely of a piece with the storytelling: Lina is a young woman still forming her ideas and trying these on via various social connections (she even falls in with some skinheaded neo-Nazis at one point, leading to a bit of discussion of Le Pen père, which suddenly feels not so distant in time). It’s a film about finding strength and seeking identity, and in that it’s very successful.
Director/Writer Danielle Arbid دانيال عربيد; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Manal Issa منال عيسى, Vincent Lacoste; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Barbican Cinema, London, Thursday 17 November 2016.