Under the Shadow (2016)

There have been a number of recent films from the Middle East that deal with living through wartime, and which employ supernatural or surreal themes, like the Syrian film The Day I Lost My Shadow. One such is strictly speaking a British film (co-produced with Jordan and Qatar), although it’s made by expatriate Iranians and set in Tehran.


This isn’t the only recent horror film to locate terror in the chador (there was vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night too), as the shadowy djinn in this film is a mysterious robed figure. It’s also not the only recent film to centre its story around a mother (hello The Babadook), also much mentioned by reviewers. So if it’s not exactly startlingly original, it’s also nice to see a horror film set in wartime Iran (the late-80s to be precise, when it was at war with Iraq). The horror thus becomes an externalisation of the terrors of that war, as well as fundamentalist post-revolutionary crackdowns on dress and on left-wing politics — our heroine Shideh (Narges Rashidi), is unable to re-enrol as a doctor after a period of seditionary political engagement, and encounters all kinds of judgement from her nosy neighbours. It has a requisite number of scary bits, but it also — and this is what I really like about the best horror films — manages to bring qualities that I love about films to the mainstream, which is to say, a sense of stillness, of suffusing quiet, of creeping dread about the world and the future. I could have happily watched 90 minutes of a woman and her daughter living by themselves in a middle-class Tehran apartment, driven slowly mad, but for the rest of you, well, there are frights and they work pretty effectively.

Under the Shadow film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Babak Anvari بابک انوری; Cinematographer Kit Fraser; Starring Narges Rashidi نرگس رشیدی‎, Avin Manshadi آوین منشادی; Length 84 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Tuesday 4 October 2016.

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يوم أضعت ظلي Yom Adaatou Zouli (The Day I Lost My Shadow, 2018)

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.

Film posterCREDITS
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.

صوفيا Sofia (2018)

This feature film by a Moroccan woman director, which screened at the recent Shubbak Festival of art from the Arab-speaking world, was introduced there by the excellent British-Iranian producer Elhum Shakerifar (who for me most notably programmes the Middle Eastern and Arabic language films for London Film Festival, which have been a favourite of mine for several years). I didn’t always love it, but it shows a great deal of promise.


The title character’s affectless way of just looking like a deer trapped in headlights somewhat guides this film, as she gives frustratingly vague answers (if she gives any answer at all) to those who question her. She’s given birth to a baby out of wedlock — in what must be about the quickest pregnancy to birth sequence in any film — and this is, as the opening titles make clear, a big problem in conservative Morocco, where having sex out of marriage carries with it a year in jail. But in a sense that unjust law is merely what motivates a drama that goes further than just asking who’s the father, as she starts (in a rather strange way) to realise some power in her situation. Part of that is also a matter of class, as her cousin and aunt are very wealthy and chic, more European than Moroccan, and live in a nice neighbourhood. This accident of birth means she already has access to more resources than most, which becomes clear in the differential between her and the ostensible father, Omar, and between him and his own family. I can’t say I always responded to the central performance, but the film is examining some interesting dynamics in modern Morocco.

The film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Meryem Benm’Barek-Aloïsi مريم بنمبارك; Cinematographer Son Doan; Starring Maha Alemi مهى العلمي, Sarah Perles سارة بيرلس; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at Barbican Cinema, London, Wednesday 3 July 2019.

حقول الحرية Huqul Alhuriya (Freedom Fields, 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.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Naziha Arebi نزيهة عريبي; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 11 October 2018.

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.

Speed Sisters (2015)

There has been no shortage of excellent documentaries in recent years, as the rise to prominence of festivals like the UK’s Sheffield Doc/Fest or Canada’s Hot Docs can testify. Many of these new voices have been those of women filmmakers, gratifying within an industrial context which so often marginalises them. In watching Speed Sisters, I think, for example, of the work of Kim Loginotto, whose films like Gaea Girls (2000) have used a subculture as a way of examining wider issues within a society. And while it’s probably easy to dismiss such documentaries as light-hearted — it’s been the kind of criticism most often applied to any filmmaking or artistic creation by women over the, well, millennia really — I think there’s more value to them than is sometimes admitted. (And yes, can you tell I’ve been looking up reviews online and getting grumpy at them?)

Undoubtedly the context of this film, which deals with a Palestinian women’s motor racing team, is one with quite a bit of history and politics to unpack, so any attempt to broach such issues — the fraught relationship between Israel and Palestine not least — is going to seem flimsy to some viewers. But it’s so valuable for those such as me who are not familiar with the area to get a sense of what it’s to live, work — and race — in Palestine, a place overwhelmed by physical manifestations of state control, yet one nevertheless in which people do live their lives with a degree of freedom and vivacity that must seem surprising if it’s only the news headlines you’re reading.

The protagonists of Speed Sisters come from various backgrounds — though, given the expense entailed in the sport they’re engaged in, mostly middle-class (hardly rich, if you see some of the cars they ride, but at least with prospects) — and the documentary is canny in teasing out some of the tensions, notably between the highly-motivated Marah, whose single-mindedness and success at racing makes her sometimes unwilling to deal with the setbacks she encounters, and the self-consciously glamorous Betty, who in coming from a family of racers is Marah’s de facto chief rival for racing success but also far more aware of her media presence and image. The team is rounded out by Mona, an older woman who largely races for fun, Noor, who enjoys the speed but seems to keep forgetting the direction she needs to be going, and their captain Maysoon, barely holding these egos together while working a day job in a little clothes shop. These are thumbnail sketches the film builds up of its chief characters — and given the film’s creation over a number of years, I assume there have been personnel changes in that time that aren’t attentively followed. Indeed, presenting the precise sporting context is probably the weakest aspect of the film: it gives a great sense of what these racing meets are like and the skills involved in handling the cars, but the details of the competition itself (or indeed which race in which season is happening) passes in a blur, and seems less to the point.

The wonder, the joy of the film, is in seeing the women all live their lives amongst these racing meets. It’s a film about the women’s interactions with their family and the men in their lives (all of whom, from the head of the racing Federation down to the fans and the families, largely seem supportive and generous). It’s a film about their friendships and occasionally fractious relationships with one another. But most of all it’s about the way they navigate the very present borders and controls imposed on their lives, in trying for example to find spaces and roads on which to practice, and the dangers inherent in that, which so often they breezily laugh off (watching Maysoon chat away during her daily commute through a checkpoint in Ramallah, moaning about the traffic and the distracting smell of tear gas while there seem to be active clashes happening nearby, is just one eye-opening example). It’s a film that’s not specifically about racing, really, but about people — ordinary people, if obviously interesting and charismatic ones — trying to live in a place where that sometimes seems difficult.

Speed Sisters (2015)CREDITS
Director Amber Fares; Cinematographer Lucy Martens; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 8 March 2016.