NZIFF 2021: Ninjababy and El Planeta (both 2021)

My reviews of films I saw last month at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival has been getting a bit grim. That is somewhat the nature of festivals, to focus on the darker works that maybe aren’t so commercial, but here’s a Norwegian and a Spanish film that are both a bit more fun. Sure both deal with young women who are sort of sad and listless. The first one gets pregnant and tries to get an abortion and then spends the rest of the film getting anxious about this baby inside her, while the other she is just living beyond her means. But for the most part these are pretty enjoyable and funny even.


Ninjababy (2021) [Norway, certificate 15]

It’s interesting, and a positive corrective, that the more women who come into filmmaking, the more stories we see not about awkward indie dudes trying to pursue their art, but instead about depressed, creative young women beset by annoying indie dudes who believe they have something to say. The day before I saw the Spanish-set El Planeta (see below) and now here’s this Norwegian film, also about a young woman who fits a similar bill (Rakel here is a comics artist), but the twist is that she’s become pregnant despite her best efforts to the contrary. Having created this dilemma, it’s both acutely sensitive to the emotional terrain she experiences as a result, but also a bit anarchic (not unlike, say, Alice Lowe in Prevenge, which also gave voice to an unborn baby, albeit that film was a horror where this is sort of a… romcom?). In any case, it never quite slows down and it’s even a bit touching at times, as Rakel has to deal with her own body and feelings about children in a way that tends to resist the usual paradigms in movies like this one. And, being a comedy, there’s a broadly positive outcome to her story, but it’s not necessarily the one you expect.

Ninjababy (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Yngvild Sve Flikke; Writers Flikke and Johan Fasting (based on the graphic novel Fallteknikk by Inga H. Sætre); Cinematographer Marianne Bakke; Starring Kristine Thorp, Arthur Berning, Nader Khademi; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 14 November 2021.


El planeta (2021)
El Planeta (2021) [Spain/USA, black-and-white]

Although this is a film that deals with some pretty heavy sadness, there’s also a lightness to it and a certain idiosyncrasy that both points back to the French New Wave (shooting on location in black-and-white with a loosely improvised feel to the whole thing and an Anna Karina-like look from the writer/director/star Amalia Ulman) but also to the talkier elements of say contemporary Korean cinema (I was thinking of Heart if only because it’s another film by a writer-actor-director which has a slightly brittle sense of absurdism that I saw recently). Here the Argentinean/Spanish Ulman casts herself as Leo(nor), and right from the start — where we get a brief cameo by fellow director Nacho Vigalondo — you know that things are going to get weird. Mostly it’s in rather delightful ways albeit ones that highlight the precarity of this Spanish family, the wide-eyed desperation of Leo who has skills but no ability to really find work given her economic situation and her scamming grifter of a mother, both of whom are equally trying to make ends meet. It’s a film about the connectedness yet distance in the modern world that doesn’t manufacture hope for any of its characters, but still leaves you having enjoyed their brief chaotic presence in your life. And then it ends.

El planeta (2021)CREDITS
Director Amalia Ulman; Cinematographer Carlos Rigo Beliver; Starring Amalia Ulman, Ale Ulman; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Wellington, Saturday 13 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Quo vadis, Aida? (2020)

The centrepiece film of my Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival last month — both halfway through the festival and halfway through the total number of films I saw — was this festival favourite of last year, finally making its way to NZ’s shores. It’s a tough watch certainly, but brilliantly made (seemingly a co-production between half of Europe from all the countries and production companies attached).


It’s fair to say this isn’t a cheerful watch and if I’d paid much attention to the write-up I’d probably have known that going in. I have seen Grbavica, an earlier film by the same director, so I get the sense she makes films that engage with the modern history of her country — or at least that’s what gets international attention (since I see she also has a film called Love Island which I now want to watch, but that’s an aside) — but this one tackles the Srbrenica massacre head-on. That said, you don’t really need any historical context to become aware of just where this drama is heading, because much of it is carried in the intense, cold, hard stare of its title character, a Bosnian translator working for the UN (and played brilliantly by Jasna Đuričić). When the Serbs under Ratko Mladić (Boris Isaković) march into Srebrenica, displacing the Bosniak Muslim population, the UN take shelter of them and promise airstrikes in retaliation, but as seen here through the eyes of Aida, there is an increasing sense of desperation and futility amongst the (Dutch) UN officers in charge on the ground.

The film tracks all this without resorting to any sentimental metaphors or grandstanding, because it’s carried through the demeanour of Đuričić, as she scurries back and forth around the UN compound trying to secure the safety of her family and being pulled into making increasingly hollow and craven announcements on behalf of her bosses. Nobody ever really states what’s happening, but everyone knows it, and that’s really where the film is operating, on a sense of shared desperation and complicity in genocide, because there’s no political will to do anything else. Yet when the inevitable happens — and thankfully it’s never seen explicitly — it’s still a kick in the guts, whether or not it was ever really preventable. The film leaves us back in Bosnia years later, where everyone still knows everyone else, knows what they did, what side they were on. The film has a repeated motif of just looking into people’s eyes, and in every set we see here reflected back at us, the inevitability is etched.

Quo vadis, Aida (2020) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jasmila Žbanić; Cinematographer Christine A. Maier; Starring Jasna Đuričić Јасна Ђуричић, Izudin Bajrović, Boris Isaković Борис Исаковић, Johan Heldenbergh; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 13 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 477: Bergman Island (2006)

There’s a film with the same title directed by Mia Hansen-Løve currently doing the festival circuit rounds, but this is not that film, it’s rather the Criterion release of a documentary about Ingmar Bergman, filmed a few years before his death in his reclusive life on the island of Fårö. It’s edited down from a much longer conversation, and you can see snippets of the rest appearing as introductions to the various Bergman films in the collection as he talks about his own films. However for this documentary a lot more focus is on his own life as an artist, with a few clips from his films and some discussion of a handful of specific titles, but really it’s about him as a creator and about him as a person. The latter leads to the most revealing stuff, as he admits to having been a cruel man in his life, playing with women’s feelings (he had five wives, nine children and a string of affairs). But perhaps the most indelible turning point is his return to Sweden after being invited to a pool party by Barbra Streisand. I’m sorry, Ingmar, you made some good movies but that was the wrong choice.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Marie Nyreröd; Cinematographer Arne Carlsson; Length 83 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 7 November 2021.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (2019)

Hello and belated greetings to a new week. I got back from holiday and had my first day at work yesterday (Monday) so I failed to put a post up. Now I’m working from home, and may be for a while. This week’s theme is ‘films available on Netflix’ (and probably all directed by women). Maybe in future weeks I will cover other online streaming services. “But why now?” I hear you ask. “Why would you do a themed week about films available to watch online?” Well, I shall leave that for you to guess. I’m going to start with one of the most impressive little indie films from the last year, with a resonant title.


This isn’t a particularly showy film, though it does some things that other films make a big deal about. For a start, it’s shot like a Dardenne brothers film, in these long sinuous handheld shots, moving with people almost continuously, with very few perceptible cuts. However, the subject matter isn’t particularly aggrandising, as instead it deals with the aftermath of domestic violence, about one (professional, middle-class) woman, Aila (played by one of the directors, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), helping out Rosie (Violet Nelson), a poorer, pregnant woman she finds standing barefoot in the rain with a bruised face. Both are of First Nations origins, although that doesn’t necessarily help them get along — class seems to be the more evident dividing line, and Rosie finds it difficult to feel comfortable in the situation. The film is about trying to find some truth in these circumstances, of how difficult it is for those who are abused to accept help, and how difficult it is for those who want to give it, to accept that it may not always be wanted. The film journeys into a lot of difficult emotional terrain, and I think it’s a credit to the film that nothing is resolved easily. However, there’s a grace to it, and a sustaining power of just witnessing peoples’ lives and perhaps learning what it is to be helpful in such circumstances.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn; Cinematographer Norm Li; Starring Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Violet Nelson; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Sunday 1 December 2019.

Las herederas (The Heiresses, 2018)

Finishing up my week of South American cinema is this Paraguayan film, one of the strongest cinematic releases of the past year, quietly telling the story of an ageing woman finding a new lease of life, but without the kind of melodramatic trappings such a plot summary might suggest.


It takes its time to unfold, for us to get a sense of these characters, as they shuffle around their decrepit house in the half-light, but everything starts to come into focus when the feistier of the pair (Chiquita, played by Margarita Irún) is sent to jail for fraud. Their house is falling apart, but it has a grandeur despite the unfaded rectangles on the wall where the paintings have been sold. Men come in every so often to move out a piano or a nice table, because the two ladies need to make money. And then the story of Chela (Ana Brun), the quieter one of the two, starts to take shape, as she embraces a new sense of freedom on her own, chauffeuring the local ladies and making new friends. It’s all in the eyes, and the little turns of her head — it’s a marvellously subtle acting performance from Brun. And there’s a very precise use of sound, for example a cross-fade between a fight within the raucous prison to a salon of elderly women, both environments that contain our central characters, who look to move outwards. There’s a sadness, I suppose — they are both elderly women living in trying times — but also a small glimmer of hope that one can find, even towards the end of your life, something meaningful.

The Heiresses film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Marcelo Martinessi; Cinematographer Luis Armando Arteaga; Starring Ana Brun, Margarita Irún, Ana Ivanova; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Friday 10 August 2018.

Women Filmmakers: Annemarie Jacir

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.

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Annemarie Jacir”

Criterion Sunday 47: Insomnia (1997)

This Norwegian film is consciously harking back to film noir with its murder-mystery plot and harried, increasingly strung-out and disoriented detective trying to solve the crime, while in the meantime desperately attempting to cover up his own misdeeds. Stellan Skarsgård steps into the role of a Swedish detective who arrives in town with his almost-retired colleague, and behind him a vague and chequered career history (hence why he’s working in the north of Norway), but instead of drink and drugs and dames, it’s the effect of the constant sun which causes his mental dissolution. It’s a small quirk of the setting in some respects, but it comes to define the look and feel of the film. Of course, this kind of Scandi noir has since become very popular in fiction and on television screens, but Insomnia sets itself apart by Skarsgård’s fine acting, who as Detective Engström projects an almost emotionless surface while everything seems to be going awry beneath. By the end, the locals seem to be happy to wash their hands of their Swedish interlopers, but the sun never does set.

Criterion Extras: The disc includes a 20 minute interview from 2014 between the director and his star in which they revisit the film and talk about how it was made and about Skarsgård’s acting method. There are also two of Skjoldbjærg’s early short films, made under the auspices of the UK’s National Film & Television School where he studied.

Vinterveien (Near Winter, 1993) is a quiet rural Norwegian film about an elderly man, suffering from some unspecified but degenerative illness, being visited by his nephew and nephew’s (English) girlfriend. It uses its focus on the natural world, which is starting to draw in as winter comes, finding metaphorical links with the elderly man’s decline, before moving into some boldly apocalyptic imagery towards the end.

The other is Close to Home (1994), in which an uptight older English man is visited by the cops regarding a woman he talked to outside a club who had subsequently been raped, in which although apparently innocent of the charge, he starts to wonder about his own capacity to commit the crime (thus making the audience wonder about his culpability). It’s an interesting little psychological study, around half an hour in duration.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Erik Skjoldbjærg; Writers Skjoldbjærg and Nikolaj Frobenius; Cinematographer Erling Thurmann-Andersen; Starring Stellan Skarsgård; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at a cinema, London, Saturday 28 November 1998 (and more recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 2 August 2015).

Đập cánh giữa không trung (Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere, 2014)

BFI London Film Festival This film was presented at the London Film Festival. There was no introduction or Q&A.


It may be a co-production between many different countries, while the title may be a little unwieldy, but this Vietnamese film is a serious and stylish take on one, relatively poor, young woman’s life. The lead character is Huyen (Thuy Anh Nguyen), who lives in a little apartment by a railway line, just about making ends meet when she gets pregnant to her somewhat deadbeat boyfriend. Her resulting indecision about whether or how to get an abortion is partly what the title is alluding to, not to mention her boyfriend’s addiction to cockfighting that becomes one of the film’s key metaphors. Huyen’s repeated attempts to go through with the procedure never quite seem to work out for various reasons, and when she gets involved with sex work in order to pay her bills, her feelings alter subtly again when she meets up with a concerned client. One gets the sense at times that perhaps not all of this plotting is entirely believable if taken as naturalistic, but the film’s style pushes beyond that into a more dream-like world. The cinematography is beautiful and lush, though the film’s female first-time director never quite fetishises the poverty of the lead characters (as some other films are wont to do in this kind of setting). There’s a sense of eroticism throughout, as well, although this is sometimes resisted by Huyen as a character. The film ends on an unresolved note — an increasingly common practice these days I fell — but this works well within the narrative which the film has constructed. Definitely a filmmaker to keep an eye on, and a film well worth checking out.

Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Hoàng Điệp Nguyễn; Cinematographer Quang Minh Pham; Starring Thùy Anh Nguyễn; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Ritzy, London, Saturday 17 October 2015.

Miss Julie (2014)

It’s impossible to watch this adaptation of August Strindberg’s 1888 play without being aware of its stage-bound origins. There’s something very theatrical about its presentation, including that it has only three actors in it (other people are heard but never seen), and yet it’s never less than gorgeous to look at. There’s a classical simplicity to the framings that gives maximum exposure to the acting, and all of the actors do some of their finest screen work (though quite whether Colin Farrell will ever win me over, I’m not sure). That said, it’s a pretty exhausting watch, perhaps because of Strindberg’s writing, which immures the characters in a deadening and dreadful inevitability, as they — well, certainly the women (Jessica Chastain as the title character, and Samantha Morton as her household’s cook, Kathleen) — struggle towards self-destruction, helped along by the conniving of Farrell’s aspirational servant John. I suppose it all must reveal something about a certain pathology on the part of Strindberg and his era that he seems to will his female characters towards death (I understand it was inspired by Darwinism), but then he loops in the toxic effects of class stratification — Kathleen and John are a couple, both in the employ of the Count and his daughter Julie, in whose presence John becomes a shuffling, obsequious servant — and perhaps, after all, there’s something more to it. I suspect it will play well to those who are already great fans of the play, and even as I write this I can’t help but wonder if the elements that conspire to make it a tough watch couldn’t in fact be construed in its favour? Chacun à son goût.

Miss Julie film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Liv Ullmann (based on the play Fröken Julie by August Strindberg); Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman; Starring Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Wednesday 9 September 2015.

Drone (2014)

The contention that the aggression (if not strictly speaking “wars”) undertaken by the US government take an unacceptable toll on not just the lives of civilians around the world, but on basic human liberties, is surely not much contested at a broad level. In this film, it’s the use of the titular unmanned war craft which structures a story of unseen (and often unacknowledged) conflicts, largely in the border provinces of Pakistan under the guise of targeting Al Qaeda. The filmmaker interviews compelling and loquacious subjects including a number of former drone pilots, suggesting unsettling links between that programme and modern video gaming (one of these pilots is disarmingly like one’s mental stereotype of the gamer), as well as others working around the industry. A particular highlight is a startlingly ingenuous take on drone warfare from a man who helped to create and market the technology. Understandably, perhaps, there’s little in the way of corrective voices from the agencies who most rely on drone warfare, so the film’s thesis tends to be a one-way street. Yet it’s terrifying to consider the implications of this impersonal method of warfare — voiced in the film most cogently by a former military adviser to Colin Powell — not just to unnamed Pakistani targets, but to all of us wherever we live, and that’s something the film puts across keenly.

Drone film poster CREDITS
Director Tonje Hessen Schei; Cinematographer Anna Myking; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Monday 1 June 2015.