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.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Ramona S. Diaz | Cinematographers Clarissa delos Reyes and Nadia Hallgren | Length 94 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 7 August 2017

Lezate divanegi (Joy of Madness, 2004)

There’s nothing particularly polished about this documentary, a sort of extended making-of feature, but it shines in what it captures of the struggle Samira Makhmalbaf undertook to make her film At Five in the Afternoon (2003). It’s also made by Samira’s younger sister Hana (yet another woman making excellent films under the Makhmalbaf Film House banner), herself a teenager at the time, which makes it all the more fascinating. Basically, we see a series of scenes of Samira battling to convince local Afghan actors to take roles in her film (which is primarily about the setbacks in educating women after the Taliban have been ousted from the country). She tries to convince a mullah to drive a cart, and when he starts to feel foolish or inadequate to the task (presumably), she has to convince him not to renege on his word as a cleric. Then there’s her lead actor (Agheleh Rezaie), who takes quite some persuading of the film’s merit, as baseless rumours fly around of the production’s immorality, and that it will kill kids (not to mention require people to wake at four in the morning for several months). Still, we know from the existence of the finished feature (which is excellent) that Samira prevails — the documentary finishes before shooting begins — and we have this document to prove it’s possible for women to make thought-provoking and polished films even under intolerant regimes.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Hana Makhmalbaf | Length 71 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 31 May 2017

B for Boy (2013)

Shot in that sort of vérité style that relies (perhaps too much) on handheld camera, this is a fascinating insight into familial dynamics in Nigeria. Amaka (Uche Nwadili) is nearing her 40th birthday, pregnant with her second child, and meanwhile her mother-in-law is desperate to know if it’s a boy so her late husband’s family name can be continued. She even has a contingency second wife lined up for her son, which, needless to say, creates a bit of tension within the household. What’s particularly on point here is that we don’t see any of the male characters exerting this pressure: such is the noxious ingrained nature of patriarchal expectation, it has all been internalised by the women to the extent that they at times literally gang up on Amaka. She has some difficult decisions to make, and even a plot development that leads her to wearing a fake pregnant belly doesn’t seem absurd by the time we’ve got to that point.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Chika Anadu | Cinematographer Monika Lenczewska | Starring Uche Nwadili | Length 114 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 6 March 2017

Panj e asr (At Five in the Afternoon, 2003)

It’s fair to say that Samira Makhmalbaf is very much her own filmmaker (despite working with her more famous father, Mohsen), and it’s evident from this feature that she has an exceptional control over her actors, not to mention the visual style. There are numerous shots which have great beauty and formal rigour. Of course, that would be nothing were it not for her script, which puts across one woman’s life (Nogreh, played by Agheleh Rezaie) in ‘liberated’ Afghanistan. Without being overtly magical it puts across an almost dreamlike reality; without being politically angry it puts across an astute argument for change (its protagonist has dreams of becoming President); and without being strident (not that there’d be anything wrong with that), it makes a clear case for the promotion of women’s rights across the region. It’s at heart a humanist and warm film about a situation that’s anything but.


FILM REVIEW
Director Samira Makhmalbaf | Writers Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Samira Makhmalbaf | Cinematographers Ebrahim Ghafori and Samira Makhmalbaf | Starring Agheleh Rezaie | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 7 February 2017

The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1980)

There was a real passion to tell untold women’s stories coming out of the 70s, not in a flashy way but just, as here, on a relatively recent but largely overlooked subject, using archival clips, period music and interviews with the surviving women while they were still around to tell their stories. And they do that, very well. The film takes its name from an iconic figure of the woman factory worker used during World War II, and the women interviewed here tell of their recruitment to the war effort in factories and shipyards et al., then about the issues they faced around discrimination and (for the black workers) racism. The filmmaker cuts in some smug 40s patriarchal voiceover from a contemporary media source to tell us how hard women found the work (with such choice snippets as the women being “not used to working so hard”), as the women recall how after 8-10 hours on the assembly lines they had to come home to cook dinner for their husbands (if around) and families. There’s plenty of other recollections like this, and then about the struggle to keep the same kind of work after the war. It’s all affecting because it’s direct and from the women themselves. It also remains a fascinating story.


FILM REVIEW
Director Connie Field | Cinematographers Bonnie Friedman, Robert Handley, Emiko Omori and Cathy Zheutlin | Length 65 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 8 May 2017

Meine Brüder und Schwestern im Norden (My Brothers and Sisters in the North, 2016)

In telling the story of a South Korean woman who travels to the North (via her German citizenship; it’s a German-produced film) and makes a documentary there, this film seems to know it hardly need do more than just point a camera and bear witness to a still largely-unseen society. The North Koreans we hear often brim with enthusiasm (for the cause, for their fellow citizens, for possible reunification one day, for their leader), their daily rituals filled with songs and dances — almost all of them mentioning their dear political leaders, present and past — but the director doesn’t mock or belittle them. It’s more a frank testament to the people she encounters in various places — not just Pyongyang but a smaller city on the coast, and rural settlements where people farm the land. There’s some of that same spirit that Joris Ivens captured in How Yukong Moved the Mountains (albeit that was about the Chinese Cultural Revolution). There’s also a simplicity to the style — lots of slowed-down tracking shots, beautiful landscape and skyline photography, interviews between director and workers. We get a sense of some of the way people live, in so far as we are allowed to perceive it directly. Quite how accurate it is may not be knowable but it’s a fascinating document nonetheless.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Sung Hyung Cho | Cinematographers Julia Daschner and Thomas Schneider | Length 90 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 8 May 2017

The Levelling (2016)

As a film about guilt and grief, those mainstays of the low-budget indie drama repertoire, this does better than many films. It gets into the character of Clover (Ellie Kendrick) very well, as we get to understand her relationship to her father Aubrey (David Troughton) and recently deceased brother better over the course of its taut running time. There are thriller elements as she slowly gathers the information about her brother’s last days and hours, but there’s also an almost documentary interest in the day-to-day running of her dad’s farm, from which she left (or was forced out) to go to university. The acting has a peculiar way about it, perhaps from the screenplay, and to me it all seems a bit too stagy, deliberate and careful, but those are positive attributes in the editing and pacing of the film, which remains quite beguiling. I’ve seen a lot, lot worse films in this vein.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Hope Dickson Leach | Cinematographer Nanu Segal | Starring Ellie Kendrick, David Troughton | Length 83 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 13 May 2017

Mãe só há uma (Don’t Call Me Son, 2016)

Perhaps going in with low expectations from some decidedly lukewarm reviews helped, but I ended up really rather liking this story of confused identity. It’s an emotive subject matter (mix-ups at birth have been the subject of several good films) but the film doesn’t wring it out for melodrama. That said, I found it affecting (in a low-key way) and the lead character Pierre’s​ clash with his new family to be quite moving. The gender fluid identity issues — specifically the believability of his emotional journey (and I use the masculine pronoun because that’s the one used in the film by the character, played by Naomi Nero) — aren’t an area I can really comment on, but although they do seem to be a reflection of deeper familial divisions being explored, it doesn’t feel like they are being deployed exploitatively, though of course I’d be keen to read some trans opinions. What I’m left with is the lead actor’s defiance of normative expectations about his behaviour, and the seething undertow of anger from his birth father, though the film ends with a touching moment of emotional openness.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: BFI Flare Film Festival
Director/Writer Anna Muylaert | Cinematographer Barbara Alvarez | Starring Naomi Nero | Length 82 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Friday 24 March 2017

Sound Barrier: The Wind (1928) and Lady Macbeth (2016)

I’m stepping out a little from my usual editorial policy on this site to feature two films, separated by 90 years, because I was roped into a podcast by my friend Pamela who runs the fantastic Silent London website, and her collaborator Pete. It’s called Sound Barrier and is available at that link. I may have had little to contribute, but the others keep up a fine repartee.


This is a review of two films, both of which I’d only seen for the first time recently. And while one of them may have been available for some significant period of my life (i.e. all of it), and despite it clearly being one of those late masterpieces of the silent era (and an enduring film even now, able to stand alongside the already hymned greats of Murnau, Dreyer, von Sternberg and the like), it sadly seems difficult to find a copy currently. In The Wind, silent-era great Lillian Gish plays a frail if determined character, Letty, though her frailty, if anything, is the frailty of humanity in the face of Nature, and nature is duly windy and will destroy a (wo)man. If it’s suggestive of her sexuality (there are at least four men who fall for her, and one of them’s her cousin), it’s also even more suggestive of impending death that’s coming for everyone in the film, these people who have the temerity to stand on the frontier and try to make a life in such isolation. But the Swedish director, Victor Sjöström (aka Seastrom for his American films), also finds a really striking tone, with beautiful cinematography and a feeling of constant lingering unease, expressed via lap dissolves of rampant horses, a small play of feet, and that howling wind whipped up at every window and through every crack. I would love to see this film in a restored print on a big screen. I hope it happens soon.

There’s an even more unbridled emotional intensity in Lady Macbeth, much of which is held in Florence Pugh’s steely gaze, and that lingers over everything that happens. Of course, there’s a point at which she somewhat loses the audience’s sympathy (well mine anyway; it really depends what level of suffering you’re willing to tolerate your protagonists inflicting), but those eyes abide. Although there’s a stateliness to the scenes with her husband and father-in-law that are reminiscent of some of the more austere period films (like the recent A Quiet Passion, not least for largely eschewing a musical soundtrack), this more reminds me of Andrea Arnold’s interpretation of Wuthering Heights (2011), as the camera becomes looser in intense emotional scenes, but also for the range of actors represented — with prominent roles for black actors and actors of colour in particular (Naomi Ackie’s servant Anna, and Cosmo Jarvis as stablehand Sebastian only the most notable). Now there are still romantic/doomed/servile archetypes at play, but it seems to be reflecting on these a little, in the way that Pugh’s Katherine toys with them all as she finds some power. Nevertheless​ it remains Pugh’s film, and it’s a drama that by its close has gone full-bloodiedly Shakespearean in its destructive fancy.


THE WIND
Director Victor Sjöström [as Victor Seastrom] | Writer Frances Marion (based on the novel by Dorothy Scarborough) | Cinematographer John Arnold | Starring Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Montagu Love | Length 95 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Saturday 22 April 2017 (and again at home on DVD, Wednesday 26 April 2017)

LADY MACBETH
Director William Oldroyd | Writer Alice Birch (based on the novella Леди Макбет Мценского уезда, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, by Nikolai Leskov) | Cinematographer Ari Wegner | Starring Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie | Length 89 minutes || Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Sunday 23 April 2017

Heremias: Unang aklat — Ang alamat ng prinsesang bayawak (Heremias: Book One — The Legend of the Lizard Princess, 2006)

Right, you probably all know this film is long: it’s Lav Diaz, and events will unfold as they will. Once you get over that — and the title which playfully suggests some kind of mystical/fantasy epic poem — the movement of time isn’t really an issue, and there’s necessarily a sort of documentary effect to the extreme length, as we watch our titular protagonist (Ronnie Lazaro) trudge along endless roads with a group of vendors selling their wares from ox-drawn carts. Heremias at length peels off on his own, and, at length, gets caught in a typhoon, from which he takes shelter. When he wakes, his cow has gone and his cart is burnt. By this point, we’re at around hour four and this is the mysterious crime he’s trying to unravel (after a fashion), but things go off track again and there’s a criminal conspiracy which reveals the limits of power in an autocratic society. So there are political themes (present in much of Diaz’s work that I’ve seen), and then there’s the repeated motif of roads stretching off across the landscape, into which (or from the horizon of which) Heremias trudges, seemingly endlessly. At great, great length.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Lav Diaz Journeys retrospective
Director/Writer Lav Diaz | Cinematographer Tamara Benitez | Starring Ronnie Lazaro, Sid Lucero | Length 510 minutes || Seen at London Gallery West, London, Friday 3 February 2017